Learning When We Are Young

Elson de Araújo Montagno, MD, PhD

In recent years, scientific research has shown that experiences happening during our life's first three years have a special influence on the development of the human brain. By speaking, reading aloud and singing to our babies and infants, we help them to acquire skills, to learn and to progress throughout early life. Thus, researchers have often demonstrated what we already know. The child's brain forms itself in response to the child's relationship with the environment, and this happens until the 10th year of life, and more prominently before the third year of life.

Science knows also that children who have little environmental and social stimulation in this initial phase of life are unable to complete the development of certain networks in their brains, sometimes causing a permanent deficit in the child's ability to learn to talk, to read, to sing and to play musical instruments, to dance, to leard new idioms; in other wordsl practically everything that is important to become a full-functioning, intelligent adult.

These conclusions were oficially expressed by the president of the United States during the "White House Conference About the Development and Learning in Childhood: What New Research Tell us About Our Young Children," which happened April 17th, 1997. The conference had participants from important centers of research, such as Harvard, Yale, Washington, and California Universities, and from the American National Research Council, among others. The conference focused on the practical applications of the results of the latest scientific ivestigations about the development of brain and its cognitive abilities, and it was directed toward relatives and those who take care of children at the pre-school level.

It is important that their conclusions be widely known, since they point out the importance of the first life experiences of children for a healthy and strong beginning, so that our youth can reach their life's full potential. It is clear to everybody now that learning begins very early in life.

Committed to the future of very young children, this large research effort, which was supported by federal grants in excess of 1.6 billion dollars between 1993 and 1997, helps us to better understand the importance of the first years of life in the child's development and learning. The conference in Washington was transmitted live to the whole United States, to approximately 100 places and counties' agencies which are responsible for child care and education.

Scientists are discovering how small children develop emotionally and intellectually since their first days. "We now know that we must teach children before they start school", President Bill Clinton, has commented. A child's education, up to the sixth year, requires common sense; it is obviously not necessary to teach the alphabet to an infant a few months old.

However, one should not leave it at the mercy of the consistent daily TV trash. Children exposed to scenes of violence, especially from 1 to 3 years old, have the tendency to hypertrophy their brain's neural networks circuits, which results in more anxiety. It's a pity that there are only a few public TV channels dedicated to educational and cultural programs, such as Brazil's TV Cultura, with few programs for children, and only one worldwide channel dedicated to documentaries which are suitable for children, still due to be open: the Discovery Channel's Kids TV.

During its development, the brain has to form around 100 trillions connections among 100 billions neurons. There are factors, like the genetic factor received from parents, which determines part of the child's cerebral structure, and the environmental factor, which produces stimuli that determines the emission of axons and dendrites and the formation - or not - of connections, or synapses.

The more a child is exposed to the spoken, written, read, or sang language, the more will be its repertoire and its alternatives to manage well her emotions in its interaction with the environment. Conventional social structures, such as schools, are responsible for teaching children after they are 7 years old, but it is before this age that occurs the more important and critical phase for the development of the cognitive abilities, according to largely confirmed evidence. Up to the 10th year of life, the brain is still forming the neural networks of language. That's why a child should start learning a foreign language before that age.

Children assume their role in learning when her surrounding environment is well structured, affectionate, and stimulating; it's not necessary to force a child to have formal activities, it's only necessary to be sensitive to her natural curiosity and to have common sense. This might not be possible in its fullest extent in many homes, particularly when the required conditions are not present, or when the parents themselves didn't have the opportunity of live with these stimuli when they were reared. In child-care centers the environment has to be interesting and the educators must be well prepared, so that it is possible to develop the children's full potential for learning.

Brazil's presently ongoing teaching reforms aim at the elementary ( 7-14 years ), as opposed to the infant education (0-6 years). This project, which will be instated from 1998 to 2007, will place 60% of the education funds into elementary education - which for many counties will mean fewer funds for pre-schools. Marci Brondi, an educational specialist who has worked 14 years in public pre-schools, has recently got an A-grade for her dissertation, with honors, from the the State University of São Paulo. In the conclusions of her work, titled "A hundred years of Sao Paulo's Public Pre-School: the History of its Expansion and Decentralization (1896-1996)" she says "The decentralization is an important step for the democratization of the access to well structured pre-school teaching, as it is significant the participation of counties in the attendance to the pre-school in the State of São Paulo".

During the conference I have mentioned above, President Clinton made the announcement of a series of his government commitments with the education of small children, recognizing the importance of their earlier education; and that they must be nurtured and stimulated before the time of conventional schooling. The American Association of Medical Colleges published an open letter supporting the initiative, because it is significant for children's health. We could also learn the good things, supporting families that have small children, with programs for supplementing nutrition for mothers and their children, and adequate education and health services.

The sooner it is started this program, the better it will be for learning, and more efficient it will be for the salvage of the present, lamentable situation. We must therefore care for our children, - of our children and of our fellow man - so that we shall be able to support this great mass of humanity that is essential to make great nations.

Elson de Araújo Montagno é médico neurocirurgião, doutor em Medicina pela Universidade Livre de Berlim, ex-professor visitante da Universidade de Harvard e ex-professor da faculdade de Ciências Médicas da Unicamp.
Email: montagno@internetional.com.br

Realização: Núcleo de Infomática Biomédica

Copyright 1997 Universidade Estadual de Campinas