Our brains are always developing,
from the moment of conception and
throughout adulthood, with some of the
most important development from birth
to about six years old.
The basic architecture of the brain
is like the construction of a home—
building begins with laying the
foundation, framing the rooms and
wiring the electrical system in an
orderly way. Our early experiences
literally shape how our brains get built.
A strong foundation in the early years
increases the chances of a healthy life.
A weak foundation increases the risk of
problems later in life.
We are born ready to learn about
the world around us—how we do
that depends on our environment and
experiences early in life. Within the first
six months of life, our language skills
begin to develop and we recognize the
spoken word and people around us.
By the time we’re toddlers, we’re using
words and can walk.
Our higher thinking functions, such as
reasoning and planning, develop next,
and over the next few years, we begin
making more complex connections
between different parts of the brain.
“Any experience a child has—
whether he’s exposed to violence or
supportive care, or has enough to eat or
has toys to play with—plays a role in
determining the circuitry of his brain,”
says Dr. Deborah Dewey, a professor
in the Departments of Pediatrics and
Community Health Sciences at the
University of Calgary.
Positive serve and return experiences
(see Serve and Return on page 17), such
as cuddling or reading to a baby, can
stimulate the brains cells responsible for
language, sensory, motor and social skills.
The areas of the brain are intertwined,
and development in one part of the
brain cannot take place without affecting
“The brain isn’t organized by a
dictionary with words like social and
cognitive located in different places,”
explains Dr. Bryan Kolb, a neuroscientist
and professor in the Department of
Neuroscience at the University of
Lethbridge. “These areas overlap
considerably, affecting a whole range
of processes. By improving one, you
improve the other.”
For optimal brain development in the
early years, Dewey says a child needs
nurturing and stable relationships, and
that those relationships can be with a
parent, grandparent, childcare provider
or other caregiver.