A learning environment: what do children need

A learning environment: what do children need
Image: @anthonybogdan

If you spotted a globe, Chinese Made Easy or just a hoard of logical puzzles, it is likely that you have stumbled upon parents that not only love their children but also care deeply about their development. Move over, cute cuddly bears and car models, as early development toys increasingly gain popularity. It seems that few products have much luck these days, unless explicitly made to aid motoring or speech skills in some way.

However, is an all-around early development approach all that it is made out to be? What should a baby’s perfect developmental environment look like? Let us get to it.

Ready, steady, go!

There is a reason that a trend for early years tuition has come about and often ends up eclipsing everything else in parents’ lives. The unprecedented speeding up of social processes that came with the early noughties seems to have no end in sight. Humankind now operates at a worrying pace. Scientific discoveries vanish into thin air before we even get to the bottom of their significance, new gadgets become obsolete overnight and trends fade into oblivion.

Anyone born 50 years ago would have had quite a clear idea of when they would start school, learn to read and count. Nowadays, the chances of other kids on the playground watching Moana in Mandarin are quite high. So, most parents tend to jump on the bandwagon of this educational marathon for the sake of their infants’ better future.

What do parents want?

It is true that neither Mozart, Shakespeare or Newton ever had any special schooling. But leaving children to their own devices is too much of a risk for many parents. Indeed, the world is in a very different place right now. In this world, the speed at which we can retain information is likely to become one of the most significant competitive advantages in the near future.

There are, however, some pitfalls to early education.

Natural learning potential

The first being that our innate learning potential is so powerful that it would take a lot to curb it. In time, a healthy baby will do just fine even if deprived of clever gadgets and stimulating games.

Even in absence of any toys, a baby is bound to find an object to interact with. This inevitable development is all around us in nature, like a seed that conceals all of its energy for growth and eventually cracks open and reach towards the sun, blossoms and bears fruit no matter the weather. The lack of clever educational tools does not make anyone a bad parent or an illiterate child.

Objective limitations

It is worth reminding parents who might be on a frantic spending spree for educational materials that objective limitations to do with their child’s age do come into play. Some innovative and complex tasks are simply a matter of time and sufficient physiological and intellectual development. It is all very well and good to pursue education for your kids, but age is worth noting here.

Lack of scientific backing

Last but not least, is the fact that none of the private or public experiments in early education have yet yielded particularly impressive results. Numerous examples around the world demonstrate that childhood genius does not necessarily amount to enduring success in adulthood.

In the words of the famous Soviet early education teacher and father of seven Boris Nikitin: “I don’t get people who dream of one of their children becoming a Beethoven, the other a Newton or a Mendeleev. Whoever has such ambitions, knows nothing about bringing up children. We do not aim to teach our children everything as early as possible, but simply create the circumstances where they can develop according to their abilities and desires.” Although a celebrity in childhood pedagogy of his time, Nikitin’s family is an example of how none of his seven children grew up to be outstanding despite their prodigious early learning. Likewise, little is known of what became of Michael Kearney, a famous child prodigy and holder of the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest ever university graduate, aged 10.

In other words, there is no method for packaging the entire contents of the US Library of Congress into a child’s head in the space of 6 months. Even if your child has in fact managed to master the entire multiplication table by the age of 5, there is no guarantee that it will make them a Noble Prize winner in the future. You cannot mould a child to become a famous athlete through intense training alone with no consideration for their physical and emotional abilities. What any parent can do is create an environment, where a baby can develop to its full potential. Parents are one of the key elements to getting it right.

What is a learning environment?
Image: @anthonybogdan

What children need

In order to develop well children need to play. It has been a decade since independent experts have identified the best toys of all time as a stick, a cardboard box, a rope, a tube and mud. You read it right! No activity cards or fancy tools. Each of the “toys” in that list is worth its weight in gold for its ability to stimulate various sensory experiences - key to developing our brain cells - and its versatile role as a prop in a myriad of games, which, by the way, require no adult interference.

“We are completely on the wrong track when we believe that expensive toys should keep a child happy,” was the opinion of the genius teacher Maria Montessori, and rightly so. While manufacturers are locking horns over the creation of the latest hi-tech toys which cost a fortune, the nearest puddle or a good old stick will do the job just fine when it comes to a balanced intellectual development.

What is a learning environment?

Referring to publications in the prestigious Lancet journal, WHO experts point out several criteria which contribute to a child’s growth. This includes overall health, a feeling of safety within the family, adequate nutrition, sufficient attention from adults and access to education early on.

There is no hierarchy among these points, meaning that a vitamin deficiency can be as critical for brain development as the absence of a loving caregiver. In addition, potentially hazardous toys can do more damage than good. A well-equipped toddler’s room cannot replace meaningful interaction with adults. There is also a number of more specific measures that are worth mentioning when it comes to creating the ideal environment for a tiny human’s growth.

1/ Safety

It is not just a question of keeping lighters our of sight and windows shut. The overall state of comfort is just as important for a baby’s development. Let us call it a low level of stress. A slow paced, predictable day-to-day life with a good routine is what allows the body to focus entirely on growth, rather than a fight-or-flight response to external circumstances.

2/ Adult role models

Imitation is one of children’s strong suits and one worth taking advantage of. Those toddlers that tend to read, exercise and eat salad typically come from families that set that very example. In this way, when it comes to bringing up a child it is as much about bringing up and disciplining yourself.

3/ Physical exercise

Back in the mid-20th century, the famous American physiotherapist and bestselling author on child development Dr Glenn Doman demonstrated the close interrelationship between the psychological, mental and physical development. His ideas on children’s sensory-motor intelligence were later widely developed by others.

Paediatricians around the world now agree over the prevailing significance of a child’s physical activity in facilitating normal immune system functioning and brain development. This means that fresh air, active games with playmates and some sports are worth taking on board over something like chess or a private tutor.

4/ Independence

The only purpose of growing up for any living creature is to become an independent being, capable of self-sufficiency in any situation. Confidence in one’s abilities does not come from nowhere. It can only develop where a child is given an opportunity to take a stab at things, make mistakes and find its own solutions.

A learning environment is essentially a rather loose fitting outfit, so to speak, that a child can put on and adjust themselves. This comes as an ability to serve your own plate and pick the foods you want and the size of serving you want as a child. Or the chance to wash your hands by yourself and hang up the towel, which would require a toddler height friendly bathroom.

Rather than wait for a toddler to learn to be a tidy eater, let them get on with it and learn for themselves. Developing the ability to self service is definitely key to pre school ages. From a neurobiological perspective the brain does not distinguish between making sandwiches or learning poems off by heart when it comes to increasing its mass and neural pathways. Needless to say, some of the more practical skills are definitely bound to come in handy in life.

What should a baby’s perfect developmental environment look like?
Image: @anthonybogdan

Welcome to the perfect world

If you got to this point in the article, you deserve to hear a list of some of our more practical recommendations on how to make the most of your child’s room to create a great learning environment. So here we go.

Sticking to cognitive categories

The majority of your child’s toys can likely be divided into distinct categories. Whether it is musical instruments or animal figurines, lego, books or art and craft props. It is important for a child to have a sense of order, which they can learn to love and accept. When it comes to balanced development, psychologists particularly emphasise the so-called retreat area, a special place for toddlers to be alone with themselves. A cosy armchair, a den or a play mat can all be a kind of shelter from the outside world.

Keeping loud noises and bright colours to the minimum

Think of a typical shopping mall playroom and this is an example of exactly what not to do. Typically, they inundate children with flashing singing toys and an abundance of bright colours. To be fair, their whole purpose is to completely distract the child from everything else.

When it comes to our daily lives, focus and ability to concentrate are much more beneficial, even if it does all come down to building a toy pyramid. The best choices for a child’s room is to opt for an aesthetically pleasing interior, maintain order, select muted colours and introduce minimum electronic “talking” objects.

Avoiding gender stereotypes

Scientists often warn against focusing on stereotypical toys for boys and girls due to their potentially negative impact on a child’s future development. For instance, boys surrounded by guns and trucks often struggle with expressing their emotions, whilst girls who play exclusively with dolls are inadvertently limiting their future career choices. It is time to dismantle stereotypes.

A space for active play

It is an assumed right of parents to shut down such behaviours as bouncing on a sofa or playing ball games next to a window. However, it is also the parents’ key responsibility to allocate a space for kids to play safely and blow off some steam. An indoor climbing frame or a mini trampoline are a great idea that works even for the smallest apartments.

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