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spacer home > > > feature articles > > > learning windows

Learning Windows and the Child's Brain

by Amy Markezich, Stanford University

Many of you may have heard about "learning windows"--they seem to be the new hype in children's development. For those of you who haven't, don't worry. It's a relatively new concept, and it hasn't received much attention outside of scientific circles. But it has significant implications for your child's education, and what you can do to help.

During a child's development, there are a series of time periods, or "windows," in which a child can best learn or refine a particular ability, such as speech. After this time period is over it becomes much more difficult, sometimes impossible, for the child to learn the same thing. A good example is language development. We've all heard that young children find it much easier than adults to acquire a second language -- and it's true.

This is what developmental windows are all about. But how do we know about them? How do these windows occur? What implications do they have for your child;and if you child misses as crucial window, can she still make up this lost opportunity? These questions and many others are currently under the scrutiny of neurobiological research.

Research in neurobiology is a relatively new field, mostly due to the difficulties encountered when trying to analyze a brain's function. You can't very well slice a person's head open, poke around, and expect to observe normal brain function (not to mention the ethics of this). However, with the development of new medical imaging technology and more delicate tools, the research on neurological function has made some huge leaps. Although many unknowns still exist, we now know enough to draw some important conclusions on how learning works, especially in children.

In order to understand learning in children, we first need to have a little biology lesson. In a brain, there are millions of neurons, which form the electrical connections that let us think. These cells send their signals through axons, some of which can reach a length of up to a meter in humans. Neurons, however, are not the only cells, or even the most important ones, in the brain.

Wrapped around many of the axons are cells which form myelin sheaths, composed mainly of fat. These sheaths serve to insulate the axon, letting its signal travel about 100 times faster than in an unmyelinated axon. Why is this important? Well, if you have more myelinated axons in your brain, then your "circuits"are working much faster, and certain activities may be easier for you to learn.

This myelinization is extremely important in kids, because as newborn infants, we have very few myelinated axons. This helpsexplain why infants can't see very well, and don't have good motor coordination, among other things. Their neurons just aren't working fast enough, and so can't coordinate very well. As children get older, different regions of the brain become myelinated at different ages. That's the trick: myelinization is the key to learning windows. For example, when Broca's area, the region in the brain for language production, becomes myelinated, children develop speech and grammar. Amazingly, the brain knows which areas you need myelinated first. Wernicke's area, the center of language comprehension, becomes myelinated a good 6 months before Broca's area even starts. This is very clever, since you need to be able to understand language before you can produce it.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to learning windows. Early in life, many neurons are not very specialized as to what exactly they will have control over. Take the motor cortex. Early in life, these neurons which control movement are only generally organized, and each neuron has multiple connections to different muscles. Your experiences until the age of 10 determine how much of your cortex will be devoted to each part of your body. If you use your hands a lot, say in drawing, then more neurons will be devoted to the muscles of your hands and fingers, while less will be designated for the rest of your body. The more a muscle is used, the more connections will be stabilized. However, the less a muscle is used, the more the connections will die off.

We're agreed now that developmental windows are important, so how do we make use of them? You see, these windows are only effective if there are effective environmental stimuli which the child can interact with. This means, to stimulate more language comprehension, you need to talk a lot with your child, especiallyduring this window. Or to help the child be more coordinated or active later in life, you should encourage him or her to run and play games, especially during the window to develop gross muscle coordination. To make your child multilingual, you could teach him or her a new language during the language window.

If you don't catch an all-important learning window, does that mean that you can just give up hope that your child will ever be a world-famous musician or physicist? Not necessarily. Remember, most of these windows just make it easier for a child to learn a certain ability. If you miss a window, it doesn't mean that your kids can't learn a new skill, it just means that it will take more effort on yours and your child's part. For example, the window for learning fine motor skills ends around the age of 10. If you learn a musical instrument before that, you will be much more proficient with less practice, and the skill will stay with you more easily later in life. However, if you wait to learn until after 10 years of age, you can still be an excellent player, it will just take more work to improve and maintain yourskills.

In future columns, we will provide more specifics on when your child will have these learning windows, and on what you can do to take advantage of them.

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