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Neuroscience, Play and Early Childhood Education: Connections, Implications and Assessment

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Paralleling the works of Cambourne’s Conditions of Literacy Learning (The Reading Teacher, 54(4), 414–429, 2001), Copple and Bredekamp’s (Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth though age. National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, 2009) Developmentally Appropriate Practices and the findings from the field of Neuroscience this article explores the important components of creating an active, stimulating learning environment; one purposely designed to actively engage the minds of young children in order to help strengthen their neurological networks. The article concludes its exploration with the role of “mirror neurons” in the learning environment and how they affect the young child's mood, emotions, and empathy. KeywordsNeuroscience-Mirror neurons-DAP-Cambourne’s conditions-Learning environment
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Neuroscience, Play and Early Childhood Education: Connections,
Implications and Assessment
Stephen Rushton Anne Juola-Rushton
Elizabeth Larkin
Published online: 21 November 2009
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009
Abstract Paralleling the works of Cambourne’s Condi-
tions of Literacy Learning (The Reading Teacher, 54(4),
414–429, 2001), Copple and Bredekamp’s (Developmen-
tally appropriate practice in early childhood programs
serving children from birth though age.National Associa-
tion for the Education of Young Children, Washington,
2009) Developmentally Appropriate Practices and the
findings from the field of Neuroscience this article explores
the important components of creating an active, stimulating
learning environment; one purposely designed to actively
engage the minds of young children in order to help
strengthen their neurological networks. The article con-
cludes its exploration with the role of ‘‘mirror neurons’’ in
the learning environment and how they affect the young
child’s mood, emotions, and empathy.
Keywords Neuroscience Mirror neurons DAP
Cambourne’s conditions Learning environment
Mr. Rushton, can you turn on the computers?’’ ‘‘Mr.
Rushton, Mr. Rushton, can you take the top off the
sand box?’’ Michael and Jenna call out simulta-
neously. Meanwhile, Sarah has resorted to feeding
rabbit food to the newly acquired turtle. The sound
of the hammer from the carpentry center echoes
across the room as two more girls place their pho-
tographs in the appropriate card holder to explore
the ‘‘hospital’’, which recently replaced the house-
keeping center. From where I’m standing I can see
Michael all bandaged up lying on the operating
table. I tell myself, ‘‘It’s going to be one of those
mind-expanding days!
Introduction
The room is buzzing with activities as fifteen 4- to 5-year-
olds begin taking responsibilities for their exploration and
discovery of learning for the day. From the outside looking
in, these kindergarten children are exploring their senses in
full bloom. What may look like chaos to the untrained eye
is in fact a well orchestrated hub of learning. The children,
well versed in the routines of the classroom, are interacting
freely with the different learning centers around the room.
Each center is designed to intrigue and stimulate even the
most reserved child. Some are enjoying the textures,
sounds, and aromas in the various parts of the room such
as different types of sand from the wet and dry sand boxes;
or, the smoothness of the hard wood from both the small
and big block centers. Still others are enjoying the cool-
ness of finger paint against their hands or the spicy aromas
from the cooking center. The specialty today is making
applesauce using sequenced, ‘‘production line cooking
cards.’
S. Rushton (&)
University of South Florida, 8530 N. Tamiami Trail, B-315,
Sarasota, FL 34243, USA
e-mail: srushton@sar.usf.edu; stephenrushton1@gmail.com
A. Juola-Rushton
Wakeland Elementary School, 1812 27th Street East,
Bradenton, FL 34208, USA
E. Larkin
University of South Florida, 8350 N. Tamiami Trail, B-316,
Sarasota, FL 34243, USA
123
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361
DOI 10.1007/s10643-009-0359-3
If we could sneak a peek inside these learners, an even
more intriguing and fascinatingly complex process is tak-
ing place. As Mary begins to make the connection between
the relationships in the room, how the shape of the letter
‘A’, for instance, connects to the making of Applesauce
and the sound/a/, her brain forms new dendrites, which in
turn, branch out to hundreds, even thousands of other
neurons across the different regions of her brain (Whalen
and Phelps 2009). These millions of connections are
unnoticed by her teacher, her parents or even Mary herself.
Moment by moment, and with each new discovery of
learning, an electrical-chemical reaction is rapidly firing
across Mary’s outer-cortex, the inch bark shape outer
layer of her brain. To complicate matters, in-between each
of the hundreds of millions of electrical ‘neuron firings’,
called synapses, various chemicals which affect her mood,
focus, and attention are moving from one neuron to
another. The quantity, type, and ratio of the different
neurotransmitters being released from one axon terminal
(the end of a neuron) to the beginning of another neuron are
constantly being altered as the child moves from one
learning experience to another. This combination of
‘releasing’ and ‘up-taking’ of particular neurotransmitters,
such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (the latter
being both a hormone and a neurotransmitter) will have a
strong impact on the emotional experience and well-being
of the child (Amici and Boxer 2009).
Literally millions of neurons are constantly firing in both
the child’s and the teacher’s brains as each engage with the
classroom. At the same time the classroom teacher is set-
ting up and organizing for his teaching day, his neurolog-
ical networks are rapidly making connections. Similarly,
his fifteen 4–5 year olds entering this ‘enriched’ environ-
ment will connect emotionally, cognitively, and physically
to the room’s design.
On the outside, the teacher perceives the wonderment
taking place on the child’s face with each new discovery.
On the inside, our brains are continually changing as each
experience helps either to grow new neurons or prune away
old ones (Miller and Cummings 2007). Each day our
children leave our classrooms with new synaptic connec-
tions and a changed cerebral cortex. The brain’s neuro-
logical wiring changes as each new experience forms new
dendrites (Diamond and Hopson 1998). Part of our brain is
‘hard wired’ (the limbic system) and changes little over
time (such as our automatic heart beat, lung movements,
keeping balanced while walking etc.), while other parts are
‘soft wired’’ and are constantly changing with experience.
For instance, the child’s ability to hear and learn new
languages and adapt to new environments are forms of
‘soft wiring’ (Wolf 2007). Neuroscientists refer to this later
process as ‘plasticity’, that is, the brain’s ability to con-
tinually alter itself (literally forming new synaptic
connections and memories) as it processes information.
Gallagher (2005) suggest that this adaptation of the brain
may lead us to living more efficient lives in the future.
This article will explore the important components of
creating an active, stimulating learning environment. This
learning environment is one that is purposely designed to
actively engage the minds of young children in order to
help foster growth. This growth will be strengthening the
neurological networks already existing and creating more
interconnecting dendrites—the essence of learning—in a
young child’s brain. Then, our exploration will turn to the
concept of ‘‘mirror neurons’’ and how they play a vital role
in the mood, emotions and empathy of the young child in
connection to the teacher. Additionally, we will connect
theory with practice by paralleling Camboune’s Conditions
for Literacy Learning (2001), and Developmentally
Appropriate Practices (Bredekamp and Copple 1987,1997;
Copple and Bredekamp 2009), and neuroscience relation-
ships. Finally, we will explore some authentic assessment
tools that support the engaging, brain friendly model of
teaching as suggested in this paper.
Advances in the Literature
The past two decades have seen an unprecedented number
of articles, research studies, and conferences outlining the
importance of understanding the mechanisms of the brain
(Miller and Cummings 2007; Whalen and Phelps 2009).
Recently, more connections between these findings and
their relationship to early childhood education are being
made (Bergen and Coscia 2001; Rushton and Juola-Rush-
ton 2007a,b,2008). Initially, Bredekamp and Copple
(1987) paved the way for educators and researchers to
better understand what ‘best practices’ are for young
children. Recently revised, Copple and Bredekamp (2009)
explore the principles of learning to meet the needs of the
modern day child. Bredekamp and Copple’s (1987) initial
work opened the door for educators (Caine and Caine
1997; Jensen 1998; Rushton 2001) to begin making con-
nections with the neurosciences and learning processes
(Diamond and Hopson 1998; Whalen and Phelps 2009).
Additionally, Rushton and Larkin (2001) aligned nine of
the 12 DAP position statements to various brain principles
and learning strategies in an article titled, Shaping the
Learning Environment: Connecting Developmentally
Appropriate Practices to Brain Research. More recently,
Gallagher (2005) postulated three critical elements for
early childhood educators to better understand their stu-
dents’ learning in relationship to the mechanisms of the
brain. She states, ‘‘Neural development, stress hormones,
and brain specialization are three areas of brain research
that inform and support developmentally appropriate
352 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361
123
practices (DAP) in early childhood education’’ (p. 12).
Clearly, great gains are being made in bringing together the
sciences of the brain and theories of practices in early
childhood education.
As early childhood educators we are well aware of the
importance that the first 5 years have on the social-emo-
tional and physical development of the child (Copple and
Bredekamp 2009). What is perhaps not as well understood
is that these same 5 years are also some of the most critical
years with respect to the developing brain (Elliot 1999).
With exciting and continuously changing research in the
field of neuroscience the truth of this has never been more
real. The numbers of dendrite connections that are formed
in the first 5 years of growth has been estimated to be over
100 billion (Miller and Cummings 2007). Indded, it is an
over production of neurons, some speculate (Gallagher
2005), that enables the child to adapt to any number of
circumstances during the early years. Forming language,
identifying cultural and social norms, and learning to dis-
tinguish right from wrong, requires this intense neurolog-
ical growth to take place, thus strengthening the
connections between neurons. This rapid growth in the
minds of young children inspires them to explore, to dis-
cover, to play and to make the natural connections between
self, others and their surrounding world. It is these dendrite
connections that open the window of opportunity to
assimilate one, or several, of 3,000 different languages
effortlessly (Nevills and Wolfe 2009).
Two great responsibilities of the early childhood edu-
cator, then, are development of the learning environment
and modeling an engagement with learning. To create a
purposeful learning environment, the early childhood
educator will need to intrigue and capture that child’s
interest. As well, and perhaps more importantly, educators
must also conduct themselves in a professional and manner
that will lead to the release of certain neurotransmitters in
the brain that supportlearning.
A Learning Environment that Supports Optimal Brain
Stimulation
The following dialogue is a snapshot of what we believe
exemplifies age appropriate sensory stimulation, empow-
erment of children, and overall what is often referred to as
a ‘‘brain-enriched’’ classroom. The room represents aspects
of the author’s present and past classroom environments.
As you enter the room your sensory system becomes
alert to all of the sounds, sights and aromas that are ema-
nating. Immediately, your sense of smell is aroused with
the scent of cinnamon. You notice a parent sitting with
several students near a crock pot cooking apples in the far
corner of the room. Next, your eyes notice the various
colored hanging paper globes from the ceiling with dif-
ferent color lights illuminating soft hues of yellows, blues
and reds. A couple of soft lights also illuminate the corners
of the room including a floor lamp in the library area. It
takes a second for the eyes to adjust from the harsh iri-
descent lights from the hallway. As your eyes begin to
adjust you notice that children are moving quietly from one
location of the room to another. Two children are sitting
knee- to- knee in what appears to be a peer writing con-
ference. Two other children are experimenting with sand as
they pour the dry sand through the plastic wheel watching
gravity at work. Yet another group of students is sitting in a
colorful reading corner that contains a couch, a rocking
chair and some beanbags. Sitting on the book shelves are a
couple of aquarium tanks. One appears to have actual fish
in it while two others have various animals such as a lizards
and gerbils. Several students are standing in front of the
cages with clipboards and pencils in hand, recording their
observations.
Below the shelves are buckets of books categorized by
themes, genres and reading abilities from picture books to
longer chapter books. The walls are covered with chil-
dren’s art work and group stories, some using inventive
spelling, class editing notes, and lines drawn all over some
pieces (obviously a piece in progress). One such story
illustrates the most recent field trip to the local newspaper.
Underneath that story are folders with the various sections
of the newspaper written by the children (Headlines,
Playground News, Fieldtrip, Units of Study) pinned against
a bright background. One child has just written something
about the pets and is now placing it in the folder called
‘Pets.’
Finally, your eyes drift to the large tree shape structure
that begins in the far corner of the room with paper vines
spreading from the ceiling across toward the library. Stu-
dents’ profiles and art work are hanging from the vines.
The children are interacting, conversing, and sharing what
they are experiencing. This is their exploratory time when
they integrate the various mini-lessons they have had over
the course of the week. The teacher is observing the chil-
dren’s interactions and is carefully listening to the language
development of several students. She has a clipboard by her
side too (not unlike the children making observations at the
aquariums), noticing certain types of behavior and lan-
guage being expressed. She listens intently to children’s
dialogue as they write on sticky notes questions they want
to have discussed at the next reading conference.
On average, school age children spend more time in the
classroom environment than they do at home. Why not
provide learning environments that stimulate the children’s
curiosity and allow them to experiment with their sur-
roundings in a manner that is empowering for them? The
description above illustrates a room filled with active,
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361 353
123
engaged learners who have varying interests. Numerous
learning opportunities are located around the room: com-
puter stations, writer’s workshop lab, science area, dra-
matic play materials—all beckoning the imaginations and
sensory stimulation of the young learner. The students here
have control of their learning and the teacher has become
more of a facilitator. She is eavesdropping on both the
types of syntax being employed by her second language
learners and the level of semantics they are developing.
From a neurological perspective, a sense of excitement
and novelty in the room helps to generate dopamine, a
neurotransmitter that creates a feeling of well-being.
Emotions (in a sense, neurotransmitters and hormones)
drive attention (the ability of the child to stay aroused and
connected to the material being presented), and attention
drives learning. With this being so, the classroom teacher
must transition to a more emotion-based teaching efficacy.
This means capturing and maintaining the attention of the
students by including them in the instructional process. If
the students are emotionally invested, they tend to stay
interested and connected to the learning process. The
explosion of new technologies makes it even more
imperative for the classroom teacher to take a whole new
look at the meaning of ‘‘learning engagement.’
Sometimes, classrooms are directed by teachers who
fear losing control and may prefer a more traditional
‘teacher-directed’ class in which children are not always
free to express their wants and needs. Inadvertently, these
well-intended educators dominate their classrooms and
may stimulate the release of other neurotransmitters and
hormones such as serotonin and cortisol within their stu-
dents, which actually decreases attention and learning.
Once released into our bodies, these two particular chem-
icals, often as a result of fears, inhibit learning from taking
place until rational thought (prefrontal lobe) has been able
to make sense of their experience. The old adage, ‘‘the
lights are on but nobody’s home’’ depicts what is hap-
pening for a student in this scenario. For the teacher, it is
the frustration of knowing she’s ‘‘covered’’ the content, but
her students are not demonstrating an understanding.
When students are provided with numerous opportuni-
ties to express and engage in what they are learning, the
connections between what has been taught and the appli-
cation of this learning is then evident not only in the
classroom but is also extended to the students’ outer world.
The learning centers help to stimulate the growth of neu-
rons from one part of the brain to another. Remember,
emotions plus attention equals learning. The more con-
nections are naturally made, the better the problem solving
ability of the student becomes. By exploring the same
learning focus within different contexts, the myelin sheath
that surrounds the neuron axon thickens. It has been sug-
gested (Diamond and Hopson 1998) that the thicker the
myelin sheaf the faster the electrical impulses move down
the neuron before igniting the chemicals in the axon and
then into the synapse to be picked up by the next neuron.
Much like the rubber or plastic on the cord of an electrical
appliance, the thicker the gauge of wire used, the thicker
the insulation required to allow the atoms to move down
the copper wire. For the classroom teacher, this means that
our choice of facilitation styles physiologically supports or
hinders our students’ learning every day they enter our
classroom door.
An active learning environment requires numerous
components that work independently of each other and also
set a whole tone. For example:
the physical arrangement of the tables, chairs, centers,
library, lighting and other components attract the
child’s interest;
space designed for both individualized work, small
group and large group meetings;
availability of manipulative materials and exploratory
spaces that intrigue the natural curiosity of the child;
large blocks of time for the child to explore, role play,
and experiment; and
perhaps most importantly, a compassionate and caring
educator who demonstrates a love for learning and
models positive interactions.
Equally important is the underpinning theory adopted by
the early childhood educator that governs the movements,
the flow of actions and interactions among the teacher and
the children.
Mirror Neurons
Copple and Bredekamp (2009) reiterate in the latest edition
of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Child-
hood Programs: Serving Children from Birth thorough Age
8, that, ‘‘A teacher’s moment-by-moment actions and
interactions with children are the most powerful determi-
nant of learning outcomes and development. Curriculum is
very important, but what the teacher does is paramount’’ (p.
xii). It is intriguing that after 30 years of research the single
most important factor in a child’s learning is the classroom
teacher’s actions, reactions, and, interactions with students.
Recently, a new discovery in the field of neuroscience has
provided the classroom teacher and educational researchers
with new data to support Copple and Bredenkamp’s claims.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s several Italian
neuropsychologists noticed the behavior of Macaque
monkeys while hooked up to a variety of brain monitoring
machines. They observed how the monkeys imitated their
instructor. ‘‘Monkey see, monkey do.’’ For instance when
the neuropsychologists ripped a piece of paper, or, poked
354 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361
123
their tongues toward the money, the young money did the
exact same thing. The results of brain imaging experiments
using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
demonstrated that the same portions of the human brain,
the inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe, were
similarly active when the person performed an action as
when the person saw another individual performing the
action. From this, some scientists (Iacoboni et al. 1999) are
concluding that these brain regions contain mirror neurons,
and they have been defined as the human mirror neuron
system. When the instructor reached for some food the
monkey mirrored the actions of the instructor. Parents have
observed this behavior with very young babies. If you stick
your tongue out at a baby, the baby often sticks his or her
tongue back out at you. Since these early days of initial
observation, entire networks of neurons have been
observed via various PET scans and fMRI machines.
Mirror neuron networks throughout the brain confirm
the importance of the teacher’s moment by moment actions
as the child’s neurological synapses ‘mirror’ not only the
teacher’s actions and reactions. Some researchers (Hurley
and Chater 2005; Winerman 2005) are speculating that
perhaps far more importantly, these same mirror neurons
affect the mood of the individual observing the instructor.
At a subliminal level, children observe the teacher’s
expression and dispositions and internalize how the teacher
is feeling. Neuroscientists’ believe that our ability to
empathize with another human being is due, in part to the
activation of the mirror neuron networks being activated by
what we observe.
It is vital that we empower our teachers to model various
dispositions such as caring, cooperation and authenticity so
that our students may become positive contributors to
society (Carr et al. 2008). From a neurological perspective,
it may appear that we educators help shape our children’s
dispositions and attitudes neurologically simply by their
observing our body language, our expressions and even our
moods. How we present ourselves may trigger a network of
neurons in a child’s brain that mirrors the image being
observed. The social cues of looking stern, upset, happy, or
excited may elicit a set of similar emotions in the child due
to the mirroring effect of the network of neurons that are
designed to learn from these social cues in our environment
(Oberman and Ramachandran 2007). The subtle changes in
our disposition, attitudes and body language can impact
what a child feels, thinks and believes. This in turn, sets in
motion any number of chemical reactions that can either
support or hinder learning from taking place. The important
connection to make here is that learning first requires that
the children are attentive to what is being taught. Mixed
signals can confuse a child. If a teacher’s body language
indicates that she is not interested in the topic, or, that she
is nervous because she does not know the content area
fully, then the message being interpreted by the children at
a neurological (and unconscious) level is apt be one of
confusion, anxiety, and distraction.
Connecting Theory to Practice
Brian Cambourne (2001), an Australian educator, devel-
oped eight conditions of literacy learning while observing
young children’s writing skills for 3 years. Rushton et al.
(2003) aligned Cambourne’s ‘‘Conditions of Literacy
Learning’’ with the brain research principles highlighted
from the literature at that time in a similar manner that
Rushton and Larkin (2001) did with the DAP principles.
We believe that the new insights from the neurosciences
extend these conditions of literacy learning as universal
conditions of learning that, when applied, will greatly
enhance all learning, from early childhood through grad-
uate school. Both ‘‘Developmentally Appropriate Prac-
tices’’ and ‘‘Cambourne’s Conditions of Literacy
Learning’’, when connected to the principles gleaned from
neuroscience, create a compelling theory to ground edu-
cators’ teaching practices (see Table 1).
We suggest that the following principles of learning take
into account the neuroscientific educational principles,
DAP, and Cambourne’s Conditions of Literacy Learning:
It is evident that if a young child is ‘‘immersed’’ in a
rich learning environment (Rushton 2001) one that is
filled with age-appropriate literature, materials to
manipulate, and questions that excite the child’s
interest, then greater learning opportunities can take
place. Immersing a child in an environment that
stimulates all the senses and has an emotional element
to it alerts the brain’s neurological networks that
something here is worth paying attention to, and
learning is likely to occur.
‘Models’’ or ‘‘demonstrations’’ (Cambourne 2001)of
age-appropriate lessons presented in an interactive
manner, allow the child’s creative and spontaneous
abilities to be expressed. This is critical in the overall
development of learning. Having stimulating ‘mini-
lessons’ or ‘teaching points’ modeled in a manner that
is non-threatening will focus the student’s attention.
Children require the opportunity to make relevant
choices regarding their daily activities as well as the
content studied. Freedom of choice is inherent in
creating a non-threatening environment.
In the middle of the brain is a walnut shaped organ (the
Amygdala) that has now been recognized to have a
powerful impact on both children’s and adults’
responses to stress. If the Amygdala is activated by a
perceived or real threat it will immediately send
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361 355
123
Table 1 Connecting developmentally appropriate practices, Cambourne’s conditions of learning and brain research
NAEYC’s positions on developmentally
appropriate practices (DAP)
Cambourne’s 8 literacy conditions of learning What brain-based research (BBR) suggests
about how the brain best learns
Classroom practices
Position statements Conditions of learning Brain principles Possible classroom activities
Domains of children’s development—
physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—
are closely related
Development in one domain influences and is
influenced by development in other domains
Immersion
Classroom teacher provides opportunities and
makes available many different forms of text
that are appropriate to the child’s world
Each region of the brain consists of a highly
sophisticated neurological network of cells,
dendrites and nerves which interconnect one
portion of the brain to another
Educators create active learning environments
that help builds community and context.
Integrated curriculum is critical in allowing
for individual differences and for the unique
brains that enter our classes daily
Students are fully immersed in the learning
process including field trips, guest speakers,
plants, animals, and art work of the students
displayed around the room
Curriculum is interrelated so that each of the
five senses are used and as many of
Gardner’s nine multiple intelligences as
possible
Development occurs in a relatively orderly
sequence, with later abilities, skills and
knowledge building on those already
acquired
Demonstration
Children need to be able to explore with all
their senses and have modeled for them
language and reading. This condition infers
that learners have modeled the action, skill
or knowledge that is to be learned
The brain changes physiologically as a result
of experience. New dendrites are formed
every day, ‘‘hooking’’ new information to
old experiences
As the child experiences an event for the first
time, new dendrites have to be formed. As
other information is gained, the brain looks
to associate the information to existing
dendrites
Educators act as facilitators, investigators,
caregivers, and listeners while providing
related mini-lessons
Thematic curriculum aids the student in
making connections from one content area to
another
Hands-on activities also stimulate the various
regions of the brain which help form stronger
associations in the brain and make learning
more enjoyable
Development proceeds at varying rates from
child to child as well as unevenly within
different areas of child’s functioning
Engagement
Children need to be active participants in their
learning. Talking, discussing, sharing are
critical ingredients for children in their
language development. Opportunities need
to be provided that allow for both
independent and shared discussions and
writing
Each brain is unique and different. Learning
new skills and knowledge literally changes
the brain structure
Brain research suggests that a spread in
differences up to 2 and even 3 years in
completely normal developing brain
Children are provided with choices that meet
their level of development. Multi-age classes
or looping
Use of planning boards and individualized
contracts along with large blocks of time are
provided for students to discover, play, and
learn
Language and motor development require
children to engage. Discussion, movement
and active learning are extremely important
Provide individualized educational plans for
all students.
356 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361
123
Table 1 continued
NAEYC’s positions on developmentally
appropriate practices (DAP)
Cambourne’s 8 literacy conditions of learning What brain-based research (BBR) suggests
about how the brain best learns
Classroom practices
Position statements Conditions of learning Brain principles Possible classroom activities
Early experiences have both cumulative and
delayed effects on individual children’s
development
Optimal periods exist for certain types of
development and learning
Expectation
Teacher’s belief and expectations in learners’
abilities is critical to develop the child’s
interest and aspirations to succeed
Brain-based learning also indicates that certain
‘windows of opportunities’’ for learning do
exist as the brain’s ‘‘plasticity’’ allows for
greater amounts of information to be
processed and absorbed
Lock-step, assembly-line learning violates a
critical discovery about the human brain:
each brain is not only unique, but is also
growing on a very different timetable
Teacher provides time for both class and group
discussions, sharing and thinking aloud.
Kagan structures support language
development
Students’ repeated experience at interactive
centers helps to develop problem-solving
skills and long-term memory. Large blocks
of time allow students to assimilate and
synthesize both new and familiar information
Young children require opportunities to
interact with each other regularly
Development proceeds in predictable
directions toward greater complexity,
organization, and internalization
Responsibility
Teachers need to model and immerse children
in their learning by providing choices for
individual differences. Responsibilities
include decision-making on the part of the
learner for choices and engagement
The brain processes on many paths,
modalities, levels of consciousness, and
meaning levels. It’s designed to process
many inputs at once and prefers multi-
processing so much that slower linear pace
reduces understanding (Caine and Caine
1997)
Information is presented in the context of real
life situations; new information builds on
prior knowledge
The learner is able to connect new information
to well established schema
Activities and learning environment are
organized for both low and high order
thinking skills
Students’ meaning should be personal first,
then adapted to fit more symbolic
understanding
Children are active learners, drawing on direct
physical and social experience as well as
culturally transmitted knowledge to
construct their own understanding of the
world around them
Employment
As children explore language, they need to be
provided time and opportunity to do so both
in a social and individual setting
Learning does not take place as separate and
isolated events in the brain
When a child is engaged in a learning
experience a number of areas of the brain are
simultaneously activated
Young children need learning environments in
which they can interact with as diverse
population as possible (various cultures,
adults - including grandparents)
Meaning is understood within the context that
it is provided, exposure to as many facets of
real life situations are important for the child
to interpret and make meaning as well as to
broaden their understandings of the world.
Field trips, guest speakers, exposure to
technology and multi-cultural units of study
will all help the child to better understand
society and themselves
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361 357
123
messages to the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands
in order to release a host of hormones and neurotrans-
mitters into the body that inhibit rational thought.
Initially designed for humans to survive, this sponta-
neous reaction needs to be dampened in the classroom.
Children of all ages need to feel ‘‘safe,’’ allowing and
learning from mistakes along the way and celebrating
accomplishments.
Children learn most favorably in positive, stimulating
learning environments, where they are able to make the
decisions about their own thinking and learning; being
allowed to choose a topic of inquiry has immediate
‘buy in’ from the child. As educators, it becomes our
responsibility to connect the topic of interest to existing
broad standards.
Young children use play as a model of learning that is
open-ended and congruent with individual differences
as well as unique talents.
When children are exposed to caring, imaginative
educators who accept the ‘whole child,’ and are
encouraging of the natural progression of learning,
children will feel confident about their abilities, trust
their teacher, and in turn, will be more inclined to ‘want
to learn.’
Assessment
Many creative teachers are forming good practices based
upon standards set by state and county guidelines and have
made the connections to authentic assessments (Jones et al.
2007). Using Developmentally Appropriate Practices
(Copple and Bredekamp 2009) these teachers understand
the natural progression of learning and development that
children pass through. Unfortunately, many other children
continue to be taught in ‘traditionally based’ classrooms
which are often driven by poor funding, very young adults
with little advanced education (Ritchie et al. 2007), or by
teachers who are mandated to use state testing and are
fearful of stepping beyond their administrators’ demands
and expectations, leaving little room for child-initiated
exploration (Takanishi and Kauerz 2008). Figure 1outlines
the influences that have impacted the course of education in
the United States and how, with the passing of No Child
Left Behind, along with a long history of other important
commission groups (National Commission 1997) educators
have been left with two choices. Either: (1) design cur-
riculum with assessment in mind first, thus creating pro-
grams based on the latest text book company’s best effort
to align tests with curriculum standards (Wien 2004); or,
(2) be led by what they know about child development and
research on the brain, and allow for authentic assessment to
Table 1 continued
NAEYC’s positions on developmentally
appropriate practices (DAP)
Cambourne’s 8 literacy conditions of learning What brain-based research (BBR) suggests
about how the brain best learns
Classroom practices
Position statements Conditions of learning Brain principles Possible classroom activities
Development and learning result from
interaction of biological maturation and the
environment, which includes both the
physical and social worlds in which children
live
Approximations
A child is not expected to wait until he has
mastered the native language before talking,
nor is it possible for a child to learn to write
without going through various stages.
Educators should permit learners to take
risks and make approximations in learning
new skills, concepts and knowledge
The human brain is constantly seeking
information from a variety of stimuli. These
‘data’’ are interpreted thorough all the
senses
Each of the senses can be independently or
collectively, impacted by environmental
factors that in turn will affect the brain’s
ability to learn
The learning environment reflects a child’s
interests, one that allows for a high degree of
interaction and manipulation on the student’s
part. Materials are age appropriate and
content is presented using a variety of
strategies
Environments are monitored for appropriate
lighting, aromas, ionization, and noise
Water and appropriate foods are available to
the child, remembering that each person’s
internal clock differs
Development advances when children have
opportunities to practice newly acquired
skills as well as when they experience a
challenge just beyond the level of their
present mastery
Response
Exchanges between the child, teacher, and
more capable peer help the student to adapt,
modify, and extend learning
The brain is primarily designed to survive.
‘No intelligence or ability will unfold until
or unless given the appropriate model
environment’
Healthy, engaged learning environments
require a moderate degree of anticipation,
low stress, and yet, challenging lessons and
activities
358 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361
123
follow the inquiry and exploration of the students (Rushton
and Juola-Rushton 2007a,b). What makes the difference?
Why do some classrooms engage, excite and stimulate the
child’s natural curiosity and create deeper learning and
meaning while other classroom environments dampen, dull
and shut down the executive parts of the brain? As com-
plicated a question as this may appear on the surface, a
child senses the atmosphere or tenor of the classroom at a
subconscious level and the ‘flight or fight’ response is
engaged, deciding in a split second if this will be an
environment to build defenses or to embrace what is
offered.
Observation has long been the primary tool for docu-
menting how children engage in the learning process
(Cohen and Stern 1969). Teachers note what children do,
say, try and show in order to guide their development.
Standardized testing captures only part of what children
know and understand. There are many ways that children
can demonstrate learning, creativity, social skills and
emotional intelligence, but these strategies are more time
consuming to assess, and open to biased interpretation.
Despite these thorny challenges, authentic expressions of
knowing that grow naturally out of children’s engagement
with the curriculum can produce satisfaction for learners,
parents, and teachers alike. The key is to document what
children are thinking and doing in multiple ways on a
continuous basis. Collecting and displaying evidence can
be in the form of photographs, video or audio recordings,
performances, constructions, multimedia bulletin boards,
drawings and other visual arts, or writing. These concrete
expressions of understanding can be shared, discussed,
sequenced, and compared until their value is clear. Then,
teachers will have the insights they need to shape each
learning environment in optimal ways for the learners
therein.
By purposely organizing the learning environment we
can create opportunities for active engagement. In other
words by immersing a child in a highly motivating and
challenging room, we may be able to engage the brain,
especially the pre-frontal cortex, which helps to solidify
learning. It is here, in the developing pre-frontal cortex,
that higher-order thinking skills take place such as com-
paring and contrasting or making connections between size
and shape. For instance, if Michael chooses to play at the
wet sand box and starts building a castle, he has stimulated
his motor cortex, his occipital lobe (seeing) as well as his
prefrontal lobe when he attempts to calculate how much
sand is required before his castle falls down. Neuroscien-
tists suggest that the pre-frontal cortex is the last part of the
brain to develop fully. Patience and careful observation are
Teaching Practices
Assessment
Assessment
Child’s Brain
Learning Environment
Teaching Practices
Learning Environment
Child’s Brain
No Child
Left Behind
$
Assessment
National
Commission
Report 1980’s
Nation at Risk
1983
Instruction Driving Assessment Assessment Driving Instruction
Constructivist
Teaching Traditional
Teaching
Fig. 1 Curriculum driven by assessment or instructi
Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 37:351–361 359
123
required on the part of early childhood educator as the
natural development of the brain unfolds. In short, the
following points help to create an environment that is
conducive for learning:
The physical learning environment is non-threatening,
yet stimulating.
Large blocks of time are made available for
exploration.
Children have choice over what they engage with and
are viewed as the ‘expert’.
Hands-on, experiential learning is the norm, not the
isolated lesson, and children have real events to
explore, read and write about.
Lessons are modeled for the children and ample
opportunities are provided to explore, play, and
celebrate.
Literature response activities connect to the child’s real
world.
Open dialogue takes place between the students and the
teacher and among students.
Curriculum across all content areas is integrated, and
opportunities for meaningful problem solving are
provided.
Assessment strategies are an authentic outgrowth of
children’s activities, and lead to a sense of accom-
plishment rather than stress.
Conclusion
Many years ago, while I was teaching pre-kindergarten, a
parent once made a collage which hung on the classroom
door. The collage, designed in the shape of a flower, had
the opening quote underneath the flower: ‘You can’t make
children grow faster by pushing them, just as you can’t
make flowers grow faster by pulling them.’’ Developmen-
tally appropriate practices urge us to meet the child where
he/she is and to slow the educational process down in order
to suit his or her needs, yet this does not always match the
desires of the teacher, administrator, district, or state. We
live in a time in history in which it has become fashionable
to use assessment tools that do not always support what we
know to be best practices (Carr et al. 2008). Today, the
study of the brain assists educators in understanding how
children learn best and what connects the learning envi-
ronment with neurobiological changes in the child’s brain.
The truth is, we can’t insist that important connections in
the brain be made, but we can support or hinder children’s
dendritic growth with the practices we implement. Thus,
we can optimize learning from the moment we greet each
child at the classroom door if we create a brain-friendly
environment.
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