Optimizing Early Learning Environments
Studies have shown that competency in childhood stems from three major factors in the early learning environment: 1) rich sensory environments--indoors and out; 2) freedom to explore the environment with few restrictions; and 3) available parents acting as consultants when children ask questions.
Information on how the brain grows and matures deepens our understanding of how essential sensory input is to learning, thought, and creativity. The need for rich sensory and hands-on experiences continues throughout our lives. Hannaford makes special reference to the developmental needs and capacities of the fetus and infant/child--fascinating, and imminently practical. For example "hands-on" experiences or "manipulatives" during the learning process promote learning, since much more of the brain is activated in building more complex nerve networks and tapping into more brain resources. If children are gently touched on the shoulder while reading, the brain connects the encouraging touch with the reading and helps to anchor the positive experience. (Hannaford also offers examples of the use of touch in changing inappropriate behavior.)
While we tend to make distinctions between thought and emotion in the same way we do between mind and body, Hannaford asserts that these distinctions don't exist. Body, thought, and emotion are intimately bound through intricate nerve networks. Rich emotional development is essential for understanding relationships, rational thought, imagination, creativity, and bodily health. When the emotions and body are dissociated from cognition, rational behavior, and learning is absent.
Emotions meet at the intersection of body and mind. In order to learn and remember, there must be sensory input, a personal emotional connection, and movement. Our emotional/cognitive processing appears to be biochemical, in that how we feel about a situation triggers specific neurotransmitters. Objectively speaking, to the mind/body every experience is simply an event. The way we perceive that event, colored by emotions, determines our response and potential for learning. If we perceive an event as a learning experience, neurotransmitters are released which increase our ability to establish and reorganize neural networks so we think and remember more effectively. If we perceive the event as a disaster, neurotransmitters are released that decrease this ability.
What's missing from all our educational efforts?
The feeling brain. —Elizabeth de Beauport