Shaping the Brain in the Early Years: Brain Development and Experience

The brain is an important part of human biology since its “most basic function . . . is to keep the rest of the body alive” (Carter, 2014, p. 6). Among other things, it regulates how the body works, processes information, controls behaviour, and makes sense of the world. Martorell and Kruk (2014) explain that “the brain’s growth occurs in fits and starts called brain growth spurts” (p. 101) for it to be able to function well. Different areas of the brain mature at different rates based on the child’s genetic blueprint; “no amount of teaching can instill in a child an ability that the brain is not ready to acquire” (Carter, 2014, p. 209). However, the brain develops at a significant rate in the first three or four years postnatal “when the brain is most flexible and receptive to learning” (Marotz & Allen, 2014, p. 30). At this time, the brain makes important connections between neurons as it processes information from the child’s environment. Marotz and Allen (2014) explain that “[n]eural connections are formed when chemical reactions in the brain are triggered by sensory input and learning experiences” (p. 30). Thus, this paper explores the factors that affect brain development based on children’s experiences. How do the designs of the childcare centre and the centre’s program affect the maturation of the brain? Both factors are instrumental to brain development as they provide a stronger foundation, produce greater synaptic connections, and foster deeper interpersonal relationships.

Greenough, Black, and Wallace (1987) state that “synapses are overproduced in early development. . . . [and] as development proceeds, the extra synapses are lost, such that the final wiring diagram consists of those synapses that remain” (p. 543). To support optimal development according to this use-it-or-lose-it principle, it is important to provide children with environments that stimulate brain development in support of their holistic growth because “experience [plays] a critical role in fine-tuning the brain [in spite of the genes supplying the initial blueprint for its development]” (Nelson, Zeanah, & Fox, 2014, pp. 2-3). Greenough, Black, and Wallace (1987) suggest that experience affects brain development in two ways: experience-dependent development and experience-expectant development (p. 540). The former happens throughout the lifespan and “is unique to the individual” (Greenough, Black, & Wallace, 1987, p. 540). In contrast, the latter “is designed to utilize the sort of environmental information that is ubiquitous” (Greenough, Black, & Wallace, 1987, p. 540). This refers to experiences that are universal to early childhood according to the evolution of the human species. Consequent to their findings, it is important to take into account the factors that influence brain development at the time that the brain makes important connections between neurons as it processes information from the child’s environment: the early childhood period.

According to Nelson, Zeanah, and Fox (2014), during the first few years postnatal, “sensory-processing areas [of a child’s brain mature] earlier than areas supporting complex cognition” (p. 7). With this in mind, Dietze and Kashin (2012) believe that “it is through play that children acquire knowledge, skills, and abilities that become the foundation for lifelong learning and development” (p. 3). Childcare programs that provide plenty of opportunities for open-ended activities allow children to “participate in consistent, enriched, and stimulating play experiences [that foster optimal brain development]” (Dietze & Kashin, 2012, p. 19). Through play, children naturally learn as they investigate and discover the new world around them using their senses. Dietze and Kashin (2012) explain that “[play] experiences are intended to trigger the child’s curiosity, which leads the child to explore new options and in new [developmental] domains” (p. 280). When children are actively engaged in play, their neurons send signals to each other as they create stronger connections according to the children’s play experiences: “[c]hildren try new ideas, combine new discoveries, and rework ideas” (Dietze & Kashin, 2012, p. 41). Learning about a concept or mastering a skill in varied sensory activities, children’s neurons fire up similar synaptic connections that make them more formidable, while also creating new connections from the new experiences. Quality play experiences allow children to draw upon their imagination, to express their ideas, and to connect with peers, educators, and caregivers. Dietze and Kashin (2012) state that “[w]hen children have opportunities for such play episodes, their play requires them to use their brain capacity to engage in language, problem solving, [and] socialization skills” (p. 20), all of which contribute to the cultivation of the children’s interpersonal relationships.

Dietze and Kashin (2012) further explain that “[p]lay is meant to be interactive so that children may respond to their environment and the environment is organized so that it triggers play” (p. 20). To continually support this, Curtis and Carter (2015) suggest childcare centres design early learning environments that “take into account . . . the role of aesthetics, lighting, color, and smells in helping children focus and enjoy learning about learning” (p. 23). These sensory-related elements stimulate the children’s brain development as they enhance their visual acuity, experience different textures, discover various sounds, and explore their sense of smell. In their investigations, children engage through their senses (Curtis & Carter, 2015, p. 25) as their fascination with the physical world attracts their curiosity, invites fantasy play, and challenge their developing abilities. Environments lacking sensory-related features discourage children to play, investigate, and explore. In contrast, providing interesting aromas, for example, helps children “[build] their memories” (Curtis & Carter, 2015, p. 41). In addition, “[a] wall or floor covered with a smooth, shiny surface of rocks and tiles beckons children to engage with their eyes, hands, and feet” (Curtis & Carter, 2015, p. 38). Such early learning environment designs challenge children intellectually and “[the educator or caregiver] can keep [the children’s] brain pathways growing and expanding” (Curtis & Carter, 2015, p. 27). According to Curtis and Carter (2015), “meaningful learning best happens when [early learning environments] are actively connected to the communities and natural elements of the environment in which they are situated” (p. 63). This provides a space for children to interact and communicate with others as they survey the microcosmic representation of their neighbourhood within the childcare centre. In creating a sense of place and belonging, children feel secure and comfortable, allowing them to be greatly receptive to environmental stimuli that foster their development.

Early childhood experiences play a significant role in the maturation of the brain. Most notably, the early learning environment and the opportunities for open-ended, child-directed play affect the brain structure as it develops from the bottom up. As Dietze and Kashin (2012) explain, “When children engage in play experiences that allow them to play for the true pleasure of the experience, . . . the play is richer in language, discovery, and movement” (p. 46). Moreover, “[b]ecause childhood is a time when the world seems full of magic and wonder, [provoking a sense of mystery in their environment entices them to explore their world fully]” (Curtis & Carter, 2015, p. 27). Active play and sensory-rich learning environments optimize the brain’s plasticity that relies on expected experience. Understanding how the brain develops in the early years allows an early childhood educator to create curricula that will support children’s holistic development. This enables the educator to facilitate children’s learning by manipulating their environment to provide enriching experiences and to facilitate the brain’s normal process of creating connections. Knowledge about the brain’s capacity to learn and adapt also allows the educator to ensure that children do not miss any “windows of learning” (Carter, 2014, p. 209) for optimal growth. Finally, awareness and understanding of these concepts aid the educator in ameliorating the growth of children who have been deprived of stimulating environments.


Carter, R. (2014). The Human Brain Book. Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

Curtis, D., & Carter, M. (2015). Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments (pp. 17-87, 127-187). Canada: Redleaf Press.

Dietze, B., Kashin, D. (2012). Playing and Learning in Early Childhood Education (pp. 1-67, 274-307). Toronto, Canada: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Greenough, W. T., Black, J. E., & Wallace, C. S. (1987). Experience and Brain Development. Child Development, 58(3), 539. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.ep7264422

Marotz, L. R., Allen, K. E. (2014). Developmental Profiles: Pre-Birth Through Adolescence. United States of America: Cengage Learning.

Martorell, G., Kruk, R. (2014). CHILD: From Birth to Adolescence. Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.

Nelson, C. A., Zeanah, C. H., & Fox, N. A. (2014). Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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