Learning and Development

Neurological development – How do children really learn?

  • Neurological development – How do children really learn?

Ben Kingston-Hughes explores how physical activity through play affects children’s brain growth…

One of the biggest myths about physical activity is that it is predominantly done through sport. Physical activity does not necessarily equal sport and for young children it rarely equates to sport. 

International children’s issues such as increasing obesity levels, low physical activity levels and poor physical health have become epidemic over the last few years. The response of governments seems to be to throw sports coaches at the problem and hope for the best. 

Don’t get me wrong, sport can be incredibly beneficial for both children and adults and there are some amazing success stories about engaging children in sport. However, it’s not the most effective way young children move and potentially disengages a significant number of children. 

Instinctive movements, working with the brain through play, do more to engage children in physical activity than any other process. We need to instil a joy in movement rather than a need to compete if we wish to engage children of all ability levels in physical activity. 

This can only be done through play. Of course, play can be competitive but that is never its prime motivation. In short, play is the key mechanism for physical activity existing long before organised sport.

Early movement is essential for brain growth. So, if we accept play as the most powerful catalyst for physical activity, we begin to see enormous neurological implications. The neurobiological effects of physical activity are numerous and impact on a broad range of brain functions. 

One of the most important effects of regular physical activity for children is increased neuron growth and increased neurological activity – more brain cells that work better! 

This means that when children are regularly physically active through play, their brains grow faster and operate at increased capacity. This increased capacity has a direct impact on cognition (the ability to understand stuff) which once again has huge implications for academic performance. 

Another implication is the effect of physical play on working memory, which means that children playing frequently are more likely to retain learning. 

Another myth about development is that it is separated into distinct developmental processes such as the prime areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage. The truth is that to the brain the lines are much more blurred.

Too much too soon?

Exploring gross motor skills through play can help children develop fine motor skills. If we want our children to be able to write effectively then one of the best ways to build the required level of brain/body control is to encourage early movement.

Remember that a child needs to be at the correct level of brain maturity to be able to have the brain/body control to hold a pen. 

If on day one of reception class, we are asking all of our children to write their name, some children may find this challenging. This is not to say that these children would not develop the brain/body control given time, but if a child is being asked to do something difficult and even unpleasant then there is a very real danger that they will make negative associations with literacy. 

This could be the first step on the road to reluctance that could stay with a child throughout their school life. Interestingly, one of the finest motor skills a child ever uses is not holding a pen and writing.

The intricate movements of the tongue to form words is a fine motor skill that requires extraordinary brain/body control to be successful. 

It is actually possible to simulate what it feels like for children attempting to write when they don’t have the appropriate level of brain/body control. Early years consultant and trainer Kirstine Beeley asks her learners to take off their shoes and socks and attempt to write their name whilst holding the pen with their toes. 

This is a genuinely challenging experience (and gross if, like me, you are not keen on feet!) and a clear indication of why some children disengage in literacy at a young age.

Put simply, if something feels rubbish then children begin to disengage. Disengaging in writing on day one of reception class can be catastrophic for a child’s learning potential.

How children really learn…

Ironically, one of the least effective ways to build a brain is by sitting still and listening to a grown-up speak. Numerous studies show that learning is enhanced by being stimulating, interactive, physically active or even by taking place outdoors.

We all remember those teachers who made their subjects fun. In short, playful lessons are more easily learnt. 

So, it’s not just neurological development that is underpinned by play. Put simply, if a lesson in school is playful then children will learn more and will then retain that learning more effectively. If a lesson is static and dull, it is considerably less effective. 

Added to this are the biochemical responses to play. If a child is engaged in a playful lesson, the chances are they will be enjoying it. If they are enjoying it, they may well be producing a biochemical cocktail including benzodiazepines.

This means that positive associations are made in the growing brain, associating the elements of learning with feelings of pleasure. 

One of the things everyone seems to forget about learning is that it is a physical change to the structure of the brain. It is not just about filling a database like a computer but actual structural changes to the brain.

Because of this, one of the most important things an educator ever needs to know is “Neurons that excite together, wire together”. 

This means that when we create a learning or developmental experience that is playful and stimulating, we don’t just activate the parts of the brain associated with learning that particular element but also the parts associated with positive feelings and biochemicals.

And because “neurons that excite together, wire together”, this creates a neural network associating positivity with learning which is by far the best neurological state for life-long learning. 

Even more fantastic is that because this is a physical structural change to the brain, over time, if these positive experiences are maintained, the neural network will become hardwired, making it a permanent feature of the brain. From this point on, the child will automatically make positive associations with learning. 

This article is an edited extract from A Very Unusual Journey into Play by Ben Kingston-Hughes (SAGE Publications Ltd).

Ben Kingston-Hughes is the Managing Director of Inspired Children