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Inside the kindergartner's brain

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

By Hank Pellissier

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The kindergartner's brain

"Let me do that! I'm all grown up now."

Kindergartners can be swollen with self-esteem, thanks to graduating from preschool into "big kid" school, where they mingle with older role models. Indeed, the kindergarten range of four-and-a-half to six years old is often bossy, belligerent, and boastful about newly-acquired motor skills like sprinting and monkey-bar tricks. The kindergarten brain also features many mental upgrades from a preschooler's: superior memory, beefed-up attention span, a tighter grip on reality, improved self-control and social skills, and a firmer grasp of knowledge codes — i.e., numbers and the alphabet.

Even so, kindergartners are burdened and blessed with brain activity that's wildly alien to adult intelligence. A five-year-old noodle has 100 billion brain cells (neurons) with 77 percent in the furiously-networking cerebral cortex — the zone that constructs language, math, memory, attention, and complex problem-solving. The neurons are maniacally sprouting dendrites, skinny octopus arms that slither out to receive data from up to 15,000 other cells, and axons that transmit information to other cells. Links between neurons — or synapses — build cognitive pathways that create every individual's specialized "brain architecture" that allows them to comprehend, accumulate, and retain knowledge.

Harvard's Center for the Developing Child notes, "early experiences in brain architecture make the early years of life [ages 0 to six years] a period of both great opportunity and great vulnerability for brain development." In other words, these are crucial years for building the foundation of "brain architecture" — a time when, as a parent and caregiver, you can have a significant impact on your child's development. Kindergarten is also a critical year because you want your child to enjoy the educational process. How can you help your child navigate the new world of "grown up" expectations? Start by following the guidelines to come.

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks

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.