How the preschool brain builds on the foundation for lifelong learning

As babies we start with potential and possibility, but a few years into a child’s life and the gap between children who are thriving and those with difficulties grows wider. In fact, more than one in four Canadian children starting school at age 5 will have difficulties and be developmentally behind their peers. 

How and why this happens is rooted in brain development during the first 2000 days of a child’s life. Brain development is the product of the exquisitely intricate dance between our genes and our experiences. The human brain is always learning and developing, but the most accelerated phase of learning takes place between birth and age 5.

The First 1000 Days (CONCEPTION to Age 2)

From seeing and hearing to smelling and tasting, so many things happen in a child’s brain in the first two years. Over a period of just 1000 days, infants go from babbling to using real words, from gazing into the distance to eye contact, from moving their fingers to pointing and waving.

The SECOND 1000 Days: Primetime! (Ages 2 to 5)

At age 2, the wiring of neural pathways in a child’s brain is expanding and becoming more intricate. By age 5, the brain’s neural networks are even more elaborate and interconnected. Connections between the mid-brain and front of the brain support children’s growing abilities to plan, make decisions, pretend, explore ideas, and get along with others. The preschool brain establishes the foundation for reading, mathematics, science, and creative arts. It sets children up to be learners for life.

What Happens When a Child Falls Behind?

When a 5 year old child has difficulties such as not getting along well with others or paying attention, it becomes harder for them to learn. Children who have cognitive and language delays at age 5 often face significant barriers to opportunity throughout their lives. This equity gap widens and may carry forward greater lifelong challenges including poverty and mental health issues.

Early Childhood Education Promotes 21st Century Skills

Many of the skills acquired by children during the primetime preschool years are crucial to the growth of society, but they are not part of human biology. They are developed and passed through generations leading to the creation and use of tools like wheels (now self-driving cars), telescopes and computers (now artificial intelligence), literacy and numeracy systems (now coding).

Families and home environments have the biggest influence on early development. Early childhood education programs complement family life and provide rich learning environments for the preschool brain. ECE for children between age 2 and 5 promotes the development of crucial language, well-being (social-physical-emotional), and thinking skills that are essential to thriving in the 21st century.

Preschool Learning Includes:

is the capacity to understand and express ideas, intentions, observations, and emotions.

How Language is Important:
 Language is an essential communication tool that builds a child’s thinking skills. It also helps them manage and regulate their feelings and relate with others.

Physical Well-Being
 is a healthy body that is well-nourished, rested, and gets plenty of physical activity.

How Physical Well-being is Important:
A child with positive physical well-being develops motor and movement skills providing them with physical independence. It also helps build confidence, manage anxiety, and increases self-esteem.

Social Well-Being is forming good relationships and having a strong sense of self.

How Social Well-Being is Important:
A child with positive social well-being gets along with and shows empathy for others including those from varied backgrounds
and cultures.

Emotional Well-Being
is recognizing and expressing emotions and understanding how these emotions influence behaviour.

How Emotional Well-Being is Important:
A child with positive emotional well-being forms healthy relationships, makes friends, and has self-confidence.

is a suite of mental abilities that enable decision making, problem-solving, imagination, creativity, and perspective.

How Thinking Skills are Important: 
When children develop complex thinking skills, they are able to plan, assess, compare, sequence, ask questions, and test ideas.

Self-Regulation is a human’s ability to manage one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

How Self-Regulation is Important:
 A child with self-regulation skills is able to positively manage the stress of challenges and new experiences without becoming overstimulated. Self-regulation is central to learning.

What We Know About the Preschool Brain

During the 1000 days between age 2 and 5, children experience a surge in development that sets them on paths for learning, behaviour, and health for the rest of their lives. By the time children reach school age, experiences in early childhood have already influenced the structure and functioning of their brains.

The data compiled from the Early Development Instrument (EDI) at the end of this profound period can help inform public policy by determining where resources are needed. High quality ECE reduces the equity gap that can grow between birth and age 5. It helps children to navigate an increasingly complex world and thrive.


What is EDI?

The Early Development Instrument (EDI) is an assessment of children’s development from the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University. Completed by kindergarten teachers, it measures a child’s ability to meet age-appropriate developmental benchmarks in physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, communication skills, and general knowledge.