Want to see your child become the next concert pianist? Forget the after school lessons – it may be more beneficial to get them a piano when they’re one.
Psychological studies, scientific research and brain imaging technologies are all offering the same conclusion: brains are shaped heavily by their experiences and environment. This is most evident in how children exposed to abusive environments exhibit high levels of dysfunction into adulthood and beyond.
The good news is that the opposite applies: healthy environments that are conducive to learning can have a lifelong positive effect on a person’s wellbeing. A 20-year-long study from the University of Pennsylvania showed astounding results: that mental stimulation at age four was critical to their brain development into their late teens.
Marlene Mouton sees this play out every day. As the CEO of CMATHS, an educational mathematics programme based around fast-paced mental arithmetic, she has hands-on experience with early childhood development. Her programme includes courses aimed at children as young as 30 months.
“Children under the age of seven are like sponges,” she says. “It’s much faster and easier to teach a child to be excellent at mathematics when they are that young. I believe that anyone can play the piano by age four or learn several different languages if they are exposed to the right environment.”
The research backs up Mouton’s conclusions. Most psychologists place the most critical period of a child’s learning between the ages of one and six. This period, known as the learning window of opportunity, is when children are most malleable and open to learning new things.
This is due to the way our brains process information. Human brains are highly efficient, strengthening neurons that are constantly used while dumping those that are rarely used. This process, known as synaptic pruning, is why it is so important to solidify important neural connections while a child is young enough.
The benefits of introducing a young child to more advanced concepts like reading and mathematics has more advantages than just the obvious. High proficiency in languages and numeracy as a toddler have been shown to be linked to increased motor, social and emotional skills. Mouton confirms that much of the positive feedback she gets from parents is around improvements in a child’s self-esteem and social skills.
With so many proven benefits of early childhood development, it’s no wonder psychologists recommend that parenting and schooling be targeted towards maximising this learning window of opportunity. Mouton believes that the country can stand to improve how it approaches pre-school education.
“South Africa’s educational system does not encourage reading, writing and maths in Grade R and below so that children can all be on the same level at Grade 1. This is a big mistake as the children then have a much harder time learning numbers and words.”
It’s important to note that putting a child in front of a piano before they can walk won’t automatically result in them becoming the next Mozart. There is still a genetic component when it comes to prodigy behaviour, and pushing a child too hard can often be detrimental.
“It’s important to engage in age-appropriate activities,” says Mouton. “Learning has to be fun when you’re dealing with very young kids. You have to find ways of engaging them through interactive and creative play.”