I cop a saying at my school, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriately dressed people.” So as Mother Nature pummeled frozen rain at my face I tried to pretend it was just a free exfoliation. Yea, right.
Friday morn and outside as always, one of my students crunches the grass with marching feet. Smoke from a distant fire, tickles her nose. Another jumps and waves her arms, building her invisible ice castle in the sky. The twins instinctively construct their forts.
Thinking all was well, I made a rookie teacher mistake and head back inside. Of course, within .01 seconds, one twin hacks a ball at his sister’s face. He yells, her heart races. She sees it flying, plants her feet, and swings a wild arm. She cries, pushes her brother and he cries. Everyone is crying and screaming - another wonderful day at my school.
But it was wonderful. We now have the science to understand how the environment of a child from conception up to about age seven will determine how effective their brain will be for life. During this time, their brain is undergoing a “big dig like” construction. Roads (neurons) and bridges (synapses) are the infrastructure and they are being erected at the speed of light.
Your son or daughter was born with about all the neurons it will ever need in adulthood. By age three, they will have grown to about 80% of their adult volume. As for the bridges, your toddler will have about twice as many synapses at age three then they will when twenty. These bridges are dormant, standing ready for that external stimulus that will ensure their existence.
Babies and toddlers are making 1,000 new neural connections every second. This is the age when all the bridges are opened without any regulations, labor unions, or budget deficits. As long as there are external stimuli, those synaptic bridges are opened effortlessly. Construction involved in learning, memory, motor control, and every other brain function is established by age 5. These structures and the neural pathways that send information between them get used and reused throughout life.
For our precious progenies, external stimuli are vital to cultivate a life long healthy, inquisitive, and regulated brain. But what happens if that crucial external spur is not driving towards that bridge? Sadly, that bridge is cut from the project, eliminated. Your child’s brain is tremendously effective and will eventually eliminate any underutilized synapses in order to construct the most efficient infrastructure. No stimuli, no bridges. Therefore, in those first years the external input needs to be authentic, rich, and interactive. This will ensure that all those most useful and needed synapses will be built and used for the rest of their lives.
So what do we do as parents, educators, and caregivers? Where do we go to ensure that our children’s brains are being exposed to the most up to date, rich, and real input? For decades I have searched for the most authentic venue and have found the secret. Ready? Open your door, and go outside. It may be complicated at first but I am sure SIRI will help. “SIRI where is outside?” As an extra travel tip – most doorknobs turn to the right.
External input comes from many sources and is perceived through our many senses and there is no better place than outside. To understand this value, think about your senses. You may think simply, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But there are three more that really help us feel this world and build those bridges. “Proprioception” or how we feel our muscles and joints. “Vestibular” or how we perceive our space, gravity, and movement. Lastly there is the sense of “Interception” or how we are receiving and responding to feelings from our organs.
One of my students crunches the grass with marching feet. Smoke from a distant fire, tickles her nose. Another jumps and waves her arms, building her invisible ice castle in the sky. The twins instinctively construct their forts. The one twin hacks a ball at his sister’s face. He yells, her heart races. She sees it flying to her, plants her feet, and swings a wild arm. She cries, pushes her brother and he cries.
In those short seconds of play, hundreds of thousands of synaptic clefts were being built. What an amazing phenomena to witness, a toddler’s brain evolving, as her brother bugs the living shit out of her. Toddler brains need to use all of their senses – outside with full body motion and authentic interaction with their parents, siblings, friends and the natural world.
Outside playing and exploring is evolutionarily how children learn. Children have been learning like this for 2 million years. Schools as they exist today have only been around for 600 years, a mere .03% our existence on earth. Perhaps it would behoove us to consider the evolutionary science of how our children learn.
So adults put your phone away and open your door. Hanging out in the grass, or on a front stoop, anywhere outside and away from technology is the best education you can ever give your child.
Jan Albertazzi is the founder of Grassroutes located in Essex, MA. Grassroutes is devoted to getting everyone back outside and learning through nature, innate curiosity, imagination, and NO technology. (That being said, we are pro technology for all high school students. Communicate, educate, register, and vote. You are the leaders that will fix what my generation and generations before me have mucked up.)