86% of brain development happens between birth and age five. I cannot say that sentence without letting the magnitude of its meaning circulate through my whole educator body every single time. This statement alone should spark educational change and drive changing priorities. Why do we continue to have to argue for the importance of early childhood education when this fact is known?
100 million is the rough estimate of the number of neurons in all human brains, adult or child. However, the child’s brain is wired differently in their early years. The brain of the average three year old is two and a half times more active than an adult. Anyone who spends any amount of time with a three year old can testify to that, can I get an amen? Every single experience the child has will either excite this plethora of neural circuitry or, if it is a rare or inconsistent happening, leave it inactive. Consistently turned on neurons and synapses will be strengthened, and those rarely excited will be pruned somewhere around the age of seven during the first neural pruning.
Why would our brains prune synapses as we age? Simply put, all complex systems must streamline at some point. Once you get deep into a project, a business start up, or an exercise program, you start to figure out what works and what you need and what is not benefiting you and not helpful to what you are trying to accomplish. We give up the unnecessary baggage in order to put more energy into what is to our advantage. The brain naturally takes these same steps to conserve energy and function with more efficiency.
What does this mean for our young children? It means we must provide the experiences necessary for their brain to develop strong connections in the areas that will most benefit them in their lives. Language, social emotional skills, relationships, patterns, number, and executive functioning skills to name just a few. These are not things we can recover in after school tutoring, drop out recovery, or many of the things we throw time, effort and money towards in their later educational years. By the late start of upper elementary and secondary grades, we will only be building on the neural structures developed and in place, and weak structures may leave that child at a lifelong deficit. Much as the complex brain system streamlines to what is used and helpful, we should reorganize our efforts and energy on early childhood.
Remember the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?" This could not be more true when prioritizing and holding the first five years of life, when the brain will be developing to almost 90% of its adult size. We must prioritize the education and experiences that create a solid foundation for a successful life.