Learning for kids may start even earlier than you think
Many parents worry about what schools their children will go to, often starting as early as their pre-school days. But a new study points to the importance of critical stages of early learning even before children enter pre-school.
The research, completed at New York University Center for Neural Science, sought to better understand these critical periods in early-life learning. The head of the study hypothesized that children need healthy activation before being in a school setting in order to promote learning and memory function.
The researchers studied rats 17 days after birth, or the equivalent of three years old for a child. This is a time when children forget episodic memories, which are typically memories of who, what, when, where, why and other associated emotions. This phenomenon is known as infantile amnesia, as adults typically are unable to retrieve episodic memories that took place between the ages of two and four years old.
They compared this younger group of rats to another group that were 24 days old, or the equivalent of a six to nine year old. Children at this age are able to create and retain memories.
Both groups were placed in a new environment where there were two compartments, one that was “safe” and another where the rats would receive a small shock to the foot. All rats started in the “safe” environment until a door automatically opened, allowing them to enter the “shock” environment.
It came as no surprise that the younger group entered the shock environment and almost immediately forgot the experience, returning a day later to be shocked again. The 24 day-old rats also had an expected reaction as they first entered, were shocked and never returned.
The surprising finding came when the researchers prompted the younger rats later in life with reminders of the experience. They discovered that the rats did, in fact, have a trace of the memory. They concluded that while these memories may not be fully remembered, early life experiences can easily influence cognition and behavior in adults.
“Using learning and environmental interventions at an early age is extremely valuable in memory encoding and ultimately in cognitive development,” says Dr. Nishant Shah, a pediatric neurologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “Reading to infants and young children as well as talking to, singing to and playing with young infants is instrumental in a child’s cognitive development.”
“Studies such as this are an excellent reminder of the fascinating plasticity and the remarkable potential of the infant brain,” says Dr. Shah. “It is worth emphasizing that learning experiences in a child start at a very young age, much younger than previously believed.”