Optimal Learning Opportunities
Throughout your child’s growth and development, she will reach certain sensitive periods for learning—times when her brain is especially receptive to mastering certain skills or absorbing an area of knowledge. Different windows open at different times after birth, and nearly all openings for optimal learning periods close by puberty. During puberty, the brain begins to set its most useful connections and to discard or prune the rest.
Even though the adult brain maintains plasticity and can still learn a skill and incorporate new knowledge, learning a new skill becomes more difficult after puberty because a foundational neural network for that skill was not established in childhood. When you know that your child is in an optimal learning period, you can provide experiences that promote her learning in that specific area.
Below I have listed your baby’s optimal learning periods, categorized by type of skill. Keep in mind that these windows are only guidelines, and that the brain is forgiving. Overall, however, it takes more effort to learn outside of an optimal period of opportunity. Most children follow a typical path of development, but every child is different. For example, stress or illness may cause a child to miss a learning opportunity, but this can usually be made up later. Observing your child and her interests is the best way for you to determine her learning opportunity windows.
This period extends from birth to approximately five to seven years of age, and the window closes around ten to twelve years old. From birth through age three, your baby learns to sort sounds, to assign meaning to cadence and pitch, to recognize words, to use words, to recognize and establish patterns of grammar and syntax, and to express herself in sentences. The best ways to support your child during this learning window are to talk and read to her reciprocally.
This period lasts from 2 to 30 months. Your baby cannot be open to learning if she is in an unstable emotional condition. In his book How the Brain Learns, David A. Sousa, MD explains that between 2 months and 30 months the brain’s limbic system and frontal lobes compete to meet your child’s needs. The limbic system, which manages emotions, is more developed at this age, so it is more likely to succeed in moderating two-year-old temper tantrums. Before three years old, the window for learning to use rational thought is open. If your child misses that opening, her brain may form neural networks that use only emotions to meet her objectives. These networks will be tough to modify later in life.
This period lasts from pre-birth to eight years old. The window opens in utero as your baby stretches, punches, and kicks. As she develops over the next three years, she builds neural networks that take her from an infant who cannot control her limbs, to a toddler who can walk, run, feed herself, and much more. Opportunities for movement build neural networks for physical competence. Sousa points out that even though your child can always learn new skills, most concert virtuosos, Olympic medalists, and professional players of individual sports begin to practice their skills by the age of eight.
This period extends from birth to six years old. According to Sousa, researchers have found that babies have a rudimentary sense of numbers and that young children recognize quantity and the relational aspects of numbers. You can encourage these mathematical skills by providing your child with experiences that show relationships, such as bigger and smaller, and more and fewer. In addition, you can count with your child, and sort objects by shape and color.