Early exposure to scientific language and concepts, reinforced with new detail as children grow, will better position our youth to successfully embrace science in school.
Let’s talk about children’s astounding brains! In previous articles, we discussed the disappointingly average scores in U.S. secondary science compared with other nations, and the impact of that poor performance on U.S. industry and innovation. The U.S. needs to add a new approach. In order to create a foundation for science, leading to stronger U.S. science scores and increased innovation, Jumbo Minds believes the language of science should be introduced to young children during their explosive brain growth period.
Toddlers learning science? While a new concept, it is both possible and powerful. An early introduction to science terms allows the brain to easily attach associated concepts later. In this article we’ll talk about the human capacity for early learning, the best time to learn language, and apply that to the language of science.
Science is similar to a new language in that it includes an extensive vocabulary. Are young children capable of learning science terms? You may be surprised when you realize what those little brains can do! Let’s first dispense of old concepts. As noted in a 2017 Norwegian University of Science and Technology neuroscience study,
“Many new parents still think that babies should develop at their own pace, and that they shouldn’t be challenged to do things that they’re not yet ready for. . . . This mindset can be traced back to the early 1900s, when professionals were convinced that . . . child development occurred independently of the stimulation that a baby is exposed to. . . . [This] old development theory also contrasts with modern brain research that shows that early stimulation contributes to brain development.”
What have studies shown to be a fundamental way to stimulate infant’s brain development? Language! As many of you have heard, the ideal time to learn a second language is during childhood. As discovered in a neurological study,
“Newborn brains are full of feverish activity and . . . are already gathering and processing important information from the world around them. At just two days after birth, babies are already able to process language using processes similar to those of adults.”
It’s easier for humans to learn language (any language) between birth and age seven. In fact, “the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later.” The brain is far more impressionable in early life than later in life, as seen in the following graph that illustrates the critical ages of learning languages.
Not only is it best to learn multiple languages before age seven, but, interestingly, when language is learned after age seven, entirely different areas of the brain are used.
What makes this age range the best time to learn language? Consider the following brain development facts, as paired with the figure, below:
- Brain size is primarily established by age five: While the number of neurons (brain cells) peaks before birth, the brain reaches 90 percent of its adult size by age five (largely attributed to dendrite growth).
- The number of brain cell connections peak during the first few years of life: Synapses are the paths that allow items of knowledge to be resident in the brain and to be recalled. The cerebral cortex produces most of its synaptic connections (brain cell connections) after birth, peaking in the first few years of life, in a massive burst of synapse formation known as the ‘exuberant period’. Neurons in very young children form up to a thousand new connections per second!
- New experiences create brain cell connections, and repetition strengthens these new pathways: Brain development is activity-dependent. Every experience stimulates a neural circuit, and those pathways that are consistently used over time will strengthen.
- Brain processing speed increases between infancy and up to age 15: The speed of neural processing increases dramatically during infancy and childhood, reaching its maximum at about age fifteen. This is attributed to the myelination of nerve cell axons (the long “wires” that connect one neuron to another neuron’s dendrites).
- Introducing language increases brain cell connections: The one form of stimulation that has been proven to impact synaptic development is language. “Exposure to language in the first year of life influences the brain’s neural circuitry even before infants speak their first words.”
Figure 1– For reference – Neuron/ Brain Cell
Young children’s brains are nearly adult-sized, and process faster than adult brains. While the number of brain cells is primarily set before birth, the synapses are formed predominantly within the first few years of life. The more vocabulary/ language babies hear, the greater the brain development.
If the best time to learn multiple languages is between birth and age seven, when do children start learning the language of science? Sadly, in the U.S., basic introduction to science vocabulary often begins when children are well into public school, after the brain’s growth explosion and after the optimal capacity to learn language has diminished.
If children are first exposed to science in middle school, the new vocabulary may sound like a foreign language. Coincidentally, children’s interest in science declines in middle school, just about the time public schools begin teaching in-depth science. We feel middle school is not the best time to introduce science. Instead, let’s introduce the language of science and concepts earlier to create a foundation for understanding and learning science as children grow older. Then, when students are introduced to science in school, it won’t be the first time they are hearing the language. It’s more fun to learn when you understand what is being said!
The early exposure to scientific language and concepts, reinforced with new detail as children grow, will better position our youth for success in science.
Are we suggesting that babies will understand the concept of inertia? Probably not, but if children hear the vocabulary they will be able to connect the terms with the concepts later in life.
Every moment of our lives is flooded with science, whether related to how bodies sustain life, the never-ending motion on this planet, our surroundings, or our solar system. Yet most of our children don’t speak the language. (Heck – most adults don’t speak it!) Because our children are primed to learn language at a young age, the introduction of science vocabulary and concepts should begin when their brains best learn it. Children deserve to be taught letters and sounds, numbers, and the language of science!
To promote an early science foundation, we are creating books and products that break down science concepts into verbiage that can be easily understood by children. Imagine if 3 and 4 year olds are comfortable with science words and can then easily attach that vocabulary to concepts as they grow? Where might their science literacy lead them? What future scientists and innovators can you inspire? We encourage you to ‘speak science’ with your children. Help us create a science revolution for the next generation!