• by Bradley Scott, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1998 • Dr. Bradley Scott

Research on the development of the human brain has advanced during the last few years in ways that have substantial implications for early childhood education. The research is fascinating and compelling. The findings are a matter of national importance and interest. They affirm the value of sufficient prenatal care for mothers and infants, developmentally appropriate early childhood education and day care, and focused policy at all levels.

This article examines some of these issues by reviewing Jean Piaget’s first two stages of cognitive development as a foundation for looking at some of the more interesting aspects of the latest brain research. It also suggests strategies for parents, educators and other adults for increased cognitive and academic performance of young learners.

Piaget Suggests that a Child’s Early Years are Power-packed for Learning

Piaget described four stages of intellectual development in children. He called the first stage, sensory-motor (ages 0 to 2); the second stage, pre-operational (ages 2 to 7); the third stage, concrete operational (ages 7 to 11); and the fourth stage, formal operational (11 to 15, and beyond) (Labinowicz, 1980).

In the first stage, the infant is focused on a tremendous period of sensory input and coordination of physical action. While the child does not “think” in the same way older children and adults think, the child does exhibit goal-directed behavior and, with practice and repetition, begins to invent solutions to the puzzling world of which she or he is the center. Other signs of intelligence the child shows by the end of this stage are a rudimentary sense of object permanence, the cause and effect of actions, and preverbal language competencies such as basic sound discrimination, word recognition and limited language production.

In the second stage, the child develops representational thought and begins to see that things can represent other things. The child’s “thinking” moves from being totally externalized to being internalized. That is, the child can think and wonder about things, question things, solve certain problems, explore in purposeful ways, imitate, play symbolically (make believe and dramatic play), imagine, and use language to talk about the world around him or her.

These two stages are power-packed. We already know that in no other time in life will children (or adults) do as much learning as they do during these periods. For this reason, Piaget advocates exploratory, self-initiated, student-centered learning experiences to further cognitive growth and development. His point is not that some children will grow through the various stages while others will not. All children grow through these stages. His point is that all children go through the stages at their own pace.

Findings About the Human Brain Expand Piaget’s Theories

The latest research on the development of the human brain adds another dimension to Piaget’s theories. It brings home an amazing and intriguing point. Madeleine Nash elaborates:

Of all the discoveries that have poured out of neuroscience labs in recent years, the finding that the electrical activity of the brain cells changes the physical structure of the brain is perhaps the most breathtaking…The rhythmic firing of neurons is no longer assumed to be a by-product of building the brain but essential to the process [emphasis added] (1997).

It appears that the brain undergoes tremendous changes during the first years of life. The millions of neurons (nerve cells) in a baby’s brain begin producing trillions of electrical connections (synapses) that literally are the basis for brain power. The more synapses, the more brain power.

Research also reveals that if these connections are used, they become stronger. If they are not used, they atrophy – or shrivel up and fall off. Nash states, “By the age of two, a child’s brain contains twice as many synapses and consumes twice as much energy as the brain of a normal adult” (1997).

A 2-year-old is bursting to experience, build connections, be stimulated, take in the world – in other words, to learn. Cognition, language, emotions and the full range of being and becoming are on the verge of explosion into enlightenment, growth and development provided that people within the environment take advantage of the opportunity to nurture the child through rich experiences, interactions, opportunities for exploration, discovery and revelation.

Growth and development will occur for all children, as Piaget noted. But we are beginning to better understand that the quality of that development can be affected and altered by the quality of the environment that is created for nurturing growth and development.

James Collins states:

Proper brain development is a matter of genetics and nutrition and whether the mother-to-be drinks or smokes, but is also depends on the stimuli – that a baby receives. It depends on what the baby sees, hears and touches and on the emotions he or she repeatedly experiences (1997).

Collins goes on to report that many scientists believe there are critical “windows of opportunity” in the first few years of childhood where the brain needs certain types of experiential input to stabilize certain long-lasting neurological structures for learning.

Of course learning occurs throughout life, but the brain’s heightened capacity for learning occurs in a way during the first years of life that will not be seen again. In fact, neuroscientists have now confirmed that the brain’s greatest growth spurt draws to a close around the age of 10, with the most powerful spurts occurring during the preschool ages.

In a report entitled Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Learning, Rima Shore points out the following three findings from research on the development of the human brain (1997).

  • An individual’s capacity to learn and to thrive depends on an interplay between nature and nurture. It is not either/or; it is and.
  • Across all racial and ethnic groups, the human brain is uniquely constructed to benefit from good teaching, particularly during the first years.
  • Although learning takes place throughout the life cycle, the greatest opportunities and greatest risks occur during the first years of life.

Shore talks about the delicate balance between the old nature vs. nurture debate:

To be sure, genes play an important role, endowing every individual with a particular set of predispositions – But they [geneticists] acknowledge that genetic endowment is only part of the equation; it is the dynamic relationship between nature and nurture that shapes human development. All of this evidence … and a great deal more that is beyond the scope of this report … leads to a single conclusion: How humans develop and learn depends critically and continually on the interplay between nature (an individual’s genetic endowment) and nurture (the nutrition, surroundings, care, stimulation and teaching that are provided or withheld) – Both factors are crucial. New knowledge about brain development should end the “nature or nurture” debate once and for all (1997).

Collins poses a question that I would like to provide at least a partial answer. He says that if environment matters, we are faced with a dilemma: “At a time when children suffer perhaps the gravest social problems of any group in the United States, how do we ensure that they grow up in the best environment possible?” (1997).

This question must be dealt with in three areas: practices of parents (and other adults), practices of policy-makers and practices in schools.

Practices of Parents (and Other Adults)

As children’s first teachers, parents and other adults who interact with children must do the following to ensure the best possible environment for learning.

  • Build strong supportive relationships with children that reflect love, unconditional regard, acceptance, respect and genuine interaction.
  • Provide hundreds of opportunities for active hands-on experimentation, exploration, discovery and questioning.
  • Talk to children and engage them in discussions where listening, questioning and reflection are the rule not the exception.
  • Use everyday objects, materials and items in the environment for inquiry and discovery.
  • Support risk-taking in a safe environment that encourages trying, trying and succeeding and failing and trying again.
  • Protect and guard children from hurt, abuse, neglect, and emotional stress and trauma.
  • Seek help and learn how to ask for help when you (parents and other adults) cannot do what is suggested by the previous practices.
  • Be accountable for doing everything possible to unlock the world for children and insist that other adults around children similarly commit themselves to the same purposes and goals.

Practices of Policy-makers

  • As children’s benefactors, policy-makers at all levels must do the following to ensure the best possible environment for learning.
  • Create an environment that supports success for children’s learning, which requires appropriate resources of all types including qualified people; adequate financial backing; and clearly articulated and thoughtfully planned, implemented and administered programs that reflect high standards and genuine, authentic procedures for accountability.
  • Provide the necessary vision that best supports children’s appropriate growth and successful development and that embraces what is known from research that supports children’s learning, achieving and excelling in their homes, neighborhoods, schools and communities.
  • Be accountable for structuring legislation, regulation, administrative codes and practices that reflect what is known about how children learn.
  • Value the welfare of children and their families above your own interests, political desires and personal ego.
  • Operate at all levels with the best interest of children and their families as a matter of national priority.
  • Support continued scientific research on brain development and early learning. Support translation of that research into institutional practices such as teacher training and preparation at universities and colleges, parental involvement and skills development training programs and centers, and social service delivery programs – including prenatal, neonatal and early intervention services.
  • Achieve full funding of Head Start and other such programs at the federal, state and local levels to ensure that all children – regardless of their race, sex, national origin or economic circumstance – are reared in environments that support strong growth and development.
  • Provide adequate numbers of infant and toddler programs that support enriched environmental learning experiences for all children from birth.

Practices in Schools

  • Shore offers parents some broad guidelines for young children’s care and school readiness based upon the research on early brain development (1997). The guidelines are offered below for educators along with the parenthetical expansion that I have provided.
  • Ensure health, safety and good nutrition. (Immunizations; child-proof environments; safe places for exploring, experiencing and learning; and well-balanced meals are among the most important building blocks for success.)
  • Develop warm, caring relationships with children. (The power of attachments and relationships and the impact upon a child’s ability to learn are clearly documented.)
  • Respond to children’s cues and clues. (For example, respond to children’s rhythms, moods and feelings.)
  • Recognize and embrace the uniqueness of each child. (This includes the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and social uniqueness of the child. Such uniqueness should help educators to structure flexible, adaptive environments for children’s exploration and discovery.)
  • Talk, read and sing to children. (Surround children with language, stimulation and sensory experiences.)
  • Encourage safe exploration and play. (Remember that play is children’s work. Neuroscientists are finding that play builds brain power.)
  • Use discipline to teach. (Actions lead to consequences. Behaviors affect us and others.)
  • Establish routines. (Predictability and routine become a springboard for practice. Practice helps to solidify long-lasting cognitive structures.)
  • Limit television. (Also limit other passive pastimes. Remember that active, interactive experiences are what help to create those synapses that are the basis for long-lasting cognitive growth.)

The latest advancements in research on the development of the human brain in the early years is exciting and is potentially the most compelling reason for policy-makers, public school personnel, parents and others to rethink what we are really doing to support children coming to school “ready to learn” (the first national goal for education).

Are we really creating environments that nurture young children and their cognitive development? Are we doing so in all communities, in all schools and within all families regardless of their diverse characteristics? Are all children being presented with environmental experiences that snap those neurons together to produce learning webs?

I think not. Yet, a portion of the answer is right at our finger tips according to the latest brain research. We need to help make more connections.


Collins, J. “The Day-Care Dilemma,” Time (February 7, 1997).

Labinowicz, E. The Piaget Primer: Thinking, Learning, Teaching (Menlo Park, Calif.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1980) pp. 85-91.

Nash, M. “Fertile Minds,” Time (February 3, 1997).

Shore, R. Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development (New York, N.Y.: Families and Work Institute, 1997).

Bradley Scott, M.A., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]