What do research findings from developmental neuroscience have to do with your early childhood ministry? A lot, it turns out! Read on to learn more about the amazing brains of little ones. Then get some inspiration to design faith formation experiences that are brain-changers.
The Amazing Plastic Brain
A baby is born with about 100 billion brain cells, called neurons. Each neuron contains a cell body, several branching structures called dendrites, and one long section called the axon. Do a quick online search for images of the word neuron and you’ll get the picture!
Young brains make an extraordinary number of neural connections during the first three years of life. (They put us adults to shame!) Researchers have discovered that in a newborn’s brain, each neuron is connected to about 2500 other neurons. By the time this child turns 3, each neuron is now connected to about 15,000 other neurons. That means the number of connections doubled, then tripled! (For some amazing real-time video footage of nerve cells making connections, check out videos in the David Barlow Archive, like this one.)
During the first three years of life, many new connections form because of the experiences a young child has with the world around them. Brain researchers use the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together” to explain this phenomenon of brain networks becoming denser when experiences are repeated. The first three years of life are the time when the brain is best able to form and reorganize neural pathways in response to experiences. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity.
Researchers explore neuroplasticity in babies and toddlers through sophisticated brain mapping techniques. You may never need to know the specifics of transcranial magnetic stimulation, dense array electroencephalography, or magnetoencephalography. (If you’re interested in that sort of thing, tell the KidzMatter editorial staff about your request and I’ll write all about it!) But know that these methods of assessing brain activity has given us amazing windows into the ways that neural connections develop in the first three years of life.
Faith and the Brain
So what is it about your church setting that could actually shape neural connections in young children? What experiences could make lasting impressions on the plastic human brain so that they remain encoded for years, decades, or even a lifetime? Neuroscience research hasn’t yet focused on church settings as contexts for neural change. But many studies have shown the impact of early exposure to language-rich environments and to music. Churches can offer experiences for little ones and their caregivers that present faith-based words and music in many age-appropriate ways.
Language matters. Babies are tuned into language long before they say (or sign) their first word, usually around their first birthdays. Language experts have discovered that children are exposed to tens of millions of words before they turn 3. They’ve also learned that about 90% of the words in a toddler’s vocabulary come from words that are also in the vocabularies of their parents. Seize opportunities to teach the language of faith to young children and their parents. Model how to read Bible stories. Say prayers, Bible verses, and words of blessing. Encourage parents to repeat these words at home so children learn them by heart.
Music matters too. Turns out our brains are wired for language—and for music. Several researchers studying brain development in young children have made amazing discoveries like this: Infants prefer listening to intervals and chords that resolve rather than dissonant tones. Newborns can detect downbeats. Music therapy offers significant benefits to babies in NICUs. When caregivers sing to their babies, they are helping neural pathways form that recognize melody, rhythm, and words. Teaching simple songs of faith helps babies and toddlers learn about music and about who they are as children of God.
These findings from neuroscience only begin to suggest all the ways that churches can design meaningful experiences for little ones and their parents. Know that when you are teaching Bible stories, prayers, and songs to them, you are helping them form connections that go deep, both in heart and mind.