Inside the preschooler's brain

What insights can neuroscience offer parents about the mind of a preschooler?

By Hank Pellissier

Activate their minds

A youth human brain is a chaotic jungle of neurons getting "wired" together into intricate circuitry patterns. Early experiences have an enormous influence on children's absorbent sponge-like brains and also strongly affect the way they mature. By providing everyday activities that arouse your child's curiosity, you’re helping to create neural pathways that will increase their learning efficiency and capacity. Expose your preschooler to a variety of stimuli and allow your child hands-on interaction with three-dimensional materials. Cooking, finger-painting, clay construction, musical instruments, and going to festivals, petting zoos, museums, tide pools, concerts, and outdoor natural areas are all sensory-rich activities.

Photo credit: Nualabugeye

Be gentle

Children need to feel safe and confident. Stanford University research indicates that traumatic stress and fear can release toxic levels of the hormone cortisol, which can destroy neurons in the hippocampus, a region that supports factual and episodic memory.  You can minimize stress by giving your child positive, loving, sensitive, and encouraging feedback. Keep reprimands and threats to a minimum, avoid unnecessary power struggles, and shouting or spanking in discipline. Also, be patient about bedwetting, be sympathetic about fear of nightmares, the dark, and thunder-and-lighting storms, and allow your child to have a security object like a cozy blanket or a stuffed toy.

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Chatter time

Preschool is prime time for auditory brain development. Supporting your child's hearing and speaking helps construct strong neural circuitry for absorption of more language acquisition. Ideally, talk, sing, and read to your child in a voice that varies in pitch and rhythm and emphasizes important words. (If we mumble in a flat drone your child will get bored and not focus.) Try to ask open-ended questions that initiate thinking, explain "how things work," use high-level vocabulary, and regularly include your child in conversations that will help expand their vocabulary. Protect your child's hearing by treating ear infections promptly, and encourage her to "use her words" instead of throwing tantrums. Preschool is also an ideal time to introduce a second language since the young, "plastic" brain absorbs language quickly.

Photo credit: Greensboro Public Library

Social graces

If possible, enroll your child in a quality preschool or schedule regular play dates with friends. Encourage your child's fantasy play with friends — "pretend" games develop the brain's verbal zones and enhance social skills in sharing, communication, and conflict resolution. Allow your child to have "imaginary friends" for the same reason, but remember, preschoolers have difficulty separating reality from make-believe, so don't call them "liars" if they insist that their stories are "true."

Photo credit: Bimmer Chaser 71

Let's focus

A three- to five-year-old child might pay attention for five to 10 minutes, at best. Demanding sustained concentration on a task will frustrate both of you, but you can help your child improve his brain's working memory via games and activities that demand attention control. Recommended are checkers, tic-tac-toe, Candy Land, Chutes 'N' Ladders, age-appropriate puzzles, and concentration — the card game in which you flip over face-down cards and try to match pairs. Praise your child for hard work, and model self-control in your own behavior.

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Categorize the world

By the age of four, many circuits in the brain's cortex are formed for math and logic. To develop this center, encourage your child to compare, collect, and label objects and events in the world that she’s curious about. Do counting games, and teach the methods of classification, like big/little, long/short, shapes, colors, weight, height, and temperature.

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Digest this

For optimal brain growth, feed your child a balanced, nutritious variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dairy, and meat. Perfect brain food includes egg yolk, fatty meat, and soybeans contain choline, the building block for the neurotransmitter acetylocholine, which is crucial in memory function. It’s also crucial to limit their intake of candy, cookies, fruit juice, and sugary, and salty junk food that is only "empty calories" devoid of essential nutrition. A recent Bristol University study indicated that young children fed junk food developed IQs up to five points lower than healthy eaters, because they consumed insufficient vitamins and minerals for optimal brain growth. Learn more tips on great brain food for your child.

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Body building

Ideally, young kids should get at least 30 minutes a day to run and play outside. John Ratey MD, author of Spark, calls exercise "Miracle-Gro for the brain" because it elevates neurotransmitters and stimulates neuron growth. Swings, rocking toys, and spinning equipment are developmentally productive by stimulating different parts of the brain at the same time; building new pathways; and enhancing learning potential, spatial awareness, and rhythm. Full-body sports like soccer, swimming, yoga, gymnastics and dance are also valuable brain-building exercises.

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Rare TV

An article published in the journal Pediatrics by University of Washington researchers concluded, "early television exposure is associated with attentional problems . . . efforts to limit television viewing in early childhood may be warranted." Deleterious results can be hyperactivity and shortened attention spans. Avoid this by limiting TV to one hour per day, and don't enroll in preschools that place kids in front of a screen. Positive programs can be found on National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and many short, easily-absorbed clips on YouTube.

Photo credit: Goldenfire

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.