What Children Need for Optimal Brain Development – Part 1 of a 3 part series.

For the first time in history we are preparing children for a future we cannot clearly describe. Technology is an integral part of their lives. Today’s students, otherwise known as digital natives, are the first generation to grow up completely surrounded by technology, using computers, video games, iPods, cell phones, internet, email, etc. As a result, they will spend less than 5,000 hours of their life reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games and over 20,000 hours watching TV. Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, on average spending nearly 7.5 hours each day staring at a screen. This is up 20% from five years ago. Their brains think and process information differently than we do, thriving on instant gratification and frequent rewards, preferring games to serious work.

Today’s parents, teachers, even grandparents, however, are considered digital immigrants and some of us are better than others at adapting to the constant deluge of new technology. We tend to turn to the internet second, rather than first, as a source of information. We still read user manuals rather than letting a program teach itself and some of us are even reluctant to learn and use new technology at all. Digital immigrant educators are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language, because as with any immigrants, a language learned later in life is much more difficult.


Before we really look at how to provide a balanced lifestyle for our children, we need to understand what children need in their lives for optimal brain development. While not exclusive, it is of the utmost importance that children have the opportunity to experience unstructured play, boredom, and multi-sensory learning as well as appropriate amounts of sleep.

Unstructured play is open-ended, often creative and improvised. It is very process oriented as children are not playing for the sole purpose of creating anything. Most creative play takes place outside of direct adult supervision and has no specific learning objectives. It involves exploring, building, pretending – really whatever and wherever their imagination takes them. The best place for this unstructured play to take place is outdoors as this provides more opportunities for exploration and creativity through all its movable parts – sticks, rocks, dirt, leaves, trees to climb, etc.

unstructured-playUnstructured play supports the development of intellectual and cognitive growth, emotional intelligence, initiative, and confidence. In addition, problem solving skills, which are one of the highest executive functions we all need to develop to be successful human beings, are nurtured. Unstructured play gives children a sense of freedom and control, allowing them to develop self-discipline. They learn about themselves, what they like and don’t like, and are able to make mistakes without feeling the pressure of failure. TV viewing, on the other hand, actually encourages the need and desire to be entertained by someone else rather than having an interest in discovery and exploration.

Boredom.  What if your children don’t want unstructured play time? What if they say they are bored? This could be a direct result of parents being too concerned about scheduling all of their child’s available time into something structured, leaving no time for independent exploration. However, overscheduling children is unnecessary and could ultimately keep children from discovering what really interests them. What we need to do is ask them if they have Been creative, had Outside playtime, Read a Book, Exercised 20 minutes, and Done something helpful. (BORED)

Childhood DreamExperiencing boredom is vital for cultivating internal motivation allowing true creativity and creative thinking to take place. It provides children a chance to contemplate life rather than rush through it. Children need to learn how to fill their spare time or they will not know what to do as an adult when they no longer have someone scheduling their every moment. They become self-reliant this way. Being bored pushes an individual to find deeper meaning and satisfaction in what they are doing, restoring the perception that your activities are meaningful or significant, encouraging people to explore, as something in their current situation is clearly lacking.

Multi-sensory learning is exactly what it sounds like – learning that takes place using more than one of our senses. Some people learn best by watching, others listening, and some by getting their hands on materials. There is no substitute for immeasurable amounts of knowledge gained from real-life encounters and hands-on, 3D learning experiences that address the myriad of learning styles people have. If we compare the rich, sensory, social and emotional interactions that take place while playing dress-ups with friends, rather than on a fashion app, we can see the obvious difference. While dressing up with friends, a child spends time handling clothing, feeling the difference between materials such as corduroy, silk and lace. They strengthen their independence when changing clothes and use their imagination while interacting with each other in their new characters. They learn how to negotiate who gets to wear what and they quickly find out how far they can boss each other around before spoiling a good time. None of this happens on an app!

Sleep – The National Sleep Foundation published their guidelines in February of 2015 for the various age groups. These guidelines are based on a rigorous, systematic review of scientific literature relating sleep duration to health, performance and safety. Getting the appropriate amount of sleep helps protect your health, both physical and mental, as well as your quality of life. While you’re sleeping, your brain is getting ready for the next day by creating new pathways to help you learn and remember information. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development.

young boy fast asleep in bed

A good night’s sleep enhances your learning and problem-solving skills, regardless of what you are actually learning. It also assists you in paying attention, making decisions, and being creative. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, can actually affect brain activity. You may have difficulty making decisions, solving problems, coping with change or controlling emotions and behaviors. We all know we feel better after a good night’s sleep.


Next up in this series – “The Drawbacks of Too Much Technology” 


Carol Martora10365787_10204261764287267_5566746969908206389_nno, M.Ed., has been working in Montessori for 20 years as both a teacher and administrator. She is the parent of two teenagers who attended Montessori through the elementary years and is currently the Head of School at the Montessori School of Long Grove, in northwest suburban Chicago. She has her Montessori credentials in Elementary I and II, as well as Administration. She earned her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and sits on the board of the Association of Illinois Montessori Schools.

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