From the womb to the end of life, the human brain is constantly developing, but never more so than in the early years. Studies suggest the bulk of brain growth and development occurs after birth.
Developmental and behavioural paediatrician Dr Pongsak Noipayak, head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Development at Navamindradhiraj University's Faculty of Medicine Vajira Hospital, called the first three years "critical for building a child's brain".
Dr Pongsak said babies have about 100 billion neurons or nerve cells at birth. These grow and branch off to connect with each other, and a connection in the brain is made when the neurons fire. The more connections the brain has the more work it can do.
"Connections are made when a child has experiences," Dr Pongsak said. "Experiences make children think. Simply put, when they think, the brain cells are challenged and used."
Some connections in the brain are strengthened while many of them are culled in order to allow the remaining cells to develop further.
"So, it's important to stimulate a child's brain cells from birth in order to keep them active and for better learning and future growth; otherwise, they die off naturally," Dr Pongsak said. Memory skills play a role in young children's brain development. The doctor explained little children learn things through sensory experiences and store information as short-term and long-term memories.
"A little child uses senses to learn by rote in order to develop memories. When a child solves a problem or gives a reason for something they will pick up knowledge and store it in their long-term memory to use. So, memory skills are based upon critical thinking skills," he explained.
Dr Pongsak said information stored in our long-term memories is usually meaningful to us.
"We always recall the most exciting events in our life like graduation day or a wedding day because they are so special. To encourage a child to have long-term memories that is related to the critical thinking process, parents and teachers should provide them with information that is special or unique."
According to Patana Chutpong, a lecturer at the Preschool Education Association of Thailand under the Royal Patronage of HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, about 83% of what young children retain comes from what they see and the rest from what they hear, smell, feel and taste.
"Infants and toddlers also learn things when they have actual experiences," Patana said. "If you want young children to learn about a bird, invite them to a zoo or show them a picture of a bird. It's difficult for them to understand things when we verbally describe them."
A good tool to build these visual thinking skills that improve memories can be mind mapping. Created by British psychologist Tony Buzan, this technique transforms an idea into words and pictures with connecting lines to link information together.
"Pictures or visualisation tools make young children remember details of what they are learning easily," Patana said.
To create a mind map, a white piece of paper, a pencil and colour pencils are needed. Studies show that colours can help improve concentration and memory by 78%.
To do this, place an idea or keyword in the middle of paper. Draw lines to make branches and put words related to the main idea on the branches. Next, create sub-branches using curved lines like a tree and place information related to the branches and the central base on the sub-branches.
For instance, to teach a little child about food, parents could use "food" as the keyword and branch out to "main courses", "desserts", "beverages" and "fruit". To generate sub-branches use fried rice or steak under main courses, ice cream and cookies under desserts, etc. Using different colours to group each branch together can help children learn about each type more easily. Pictures and drawings can replace words to optimise memory.
"There is no right or wrong about creating a mind map," Patana said. "It's a note-taking technique that gathers information in a way that shows children how pieces of information link together. And looking for the connections can help them understand what they are learning about." Apart from enhancing memory skills, Patana said mind mapping also helps children exercise using the left and the right sides of the brain together, which maximises learning potential. The right side of the brain is responsible for artistry, creativity and imagination, while the left influences calculation, logic, language and analytical thinking. Studies show that most people tend to use the left side of the brain more.
"Children use logic and language skills to link ideas and form connections in the map. At the same time, the creative side is fired through drawing pictures to describe words and using vibrant colours," Patana said.
The mind mapping technique is suitable for children of all ages and can be applied to any subject, including everyday activities and school lessons. Tasks can be adjusted to suit the child's age.
"For young children, parents should create a map for them and let them learn ideas from pictures. They can simply apply the technique to storytelling to help children learn about animals, places and things. Adolescents should be encouraged to create a map on their own for more complicated tasks including homework, lessons or even chapters of books," Patana suggested.
Witsata Kunjara said she has been drawing mind maps for her daughter, helping her know from a young age what she needs to do each day and what to bring to school. She asked her daughter questions and put the answers on different branches and sub-branches, sometimes helping her out. A map is placed on the fridge as a reminder.
"We find the mind mapping technique very useful for our little girl," Witsata said. "She learns things from the pictures I draw and picks up new words from the tasks we work on together. What she has gained is that she does activities in an organised way. Our three-year-old girl is trying to do a map on her own."
Brain growth can also be affected by a child's nutrition, according to Dr Pongsak. Breast milk is the best choice for babies as it contains a mix of nutrients needed for healthy growth and development, one of the most important of which is the fatty acid DHA that supports brain and visual development. Mackerel, salmon, snake-head fish and DHA-fortified milk are other sources of DHA and can be good choices for young children.
"Lipids make up about 60% of the brain structure," Dr Pongsak said.
And how a child's brain grows depends on the environment around them. Dr Pongsak said early attachment through warmth, love and care as well as stimulation are essential to early brain growth.
"Nature, or genes, and nurture are equally important in a child's learning. And parents can make a difference as a child is under their care from zero to three years. Infants like human stimuli. They want to hear your voice. They want you to sing a song for them. They want you to touch them. They want to be loved," he said.
It's imperative for parents and teachers to learn about children's differing behaviours as they learn.
"Every child is different so there is no one strategy for every child," Patana said. "Find out which strategy works for your child. Many children want you to give them compliments. Some of them want you to challenge them."
Dr Pongsak noted the first 1,365 days of a child's life is a critical period that will determine their development, including the brain. And it's best for them to learn languages before they are seven.
"People who learn a new language before they are seven almost always speak it with a foreign accent. So parents should learn about the window of learning in order to make the most of their child's development," he said.