By Dan Olberg, Park Elementary Principal
One of the beliefs we have at Park Elementary is that everyone is a scientist. We are trying to break the stereotypical image that our students have regarding scientists. Scientists are not just those who dress up in a white lab coats and wear safety glasses all day. Scientists are farmers, cooks, hairdressers, construction workers, and much more. So when a student brought up the fact that moms and dads are scientists, I started to think about how true that statement is – especially as we know more about the brain and how it functions early in life.
Scientifically speaking, if there was one part of the brain that is more important to the intelligence of a child it would have to be the cerebral cortex. That’s where higher cognitive processing occurs. As children learn new things they are essentially changing those neurons, or nerve cells, their structure, and the chemistry in their cerebral cortices.
Human beings get an explosive growth of dendrites in the cerebral cortex, like branches, in their first 8 to 10 years of life. These branches link knowledge and experiences together. Think of it as a tree with branches and leaves. The leaves hold pieces of information and the branches link the information together. As long as new experiences and knowledge continues to filter in, the branches grow and sprout new leaves. Naturally, there is a rapid growth of branches in these early years and it peaks at about the age of 10 when it slowly starts to decrease. At this point the branches that haven’t made connections die off. This process is called pruning. That’s why there’s so much interest today in those first 10 years of life.
So we need to ask ourselves as scientists some very important questions. How can we give children the best experiences for maximum growth? What activities are our children doing that foster brain growth? What activities are our children doing to stifle or limit the growth? What are we doing as parents to engage our children in life experiences? Those questions are not hard to answer; however, acting on them can be more than difficult at times.
So the students had it right, parenting is part science. Our guidance through these important years is scientifically important. The most exciting discovery about all this research is that education should continue for a lifetime. The brain’s capacity for learning and change is limitless, depending on our willingness to seek new experiences and opportunities. Our “trees,” as well as our children’s can continue to fill out and expand with a wide variety of real-world and academic activities. “Branch out” and support children’s continued brain growth.