Research on Early Childhood Learning: What’s Changed?

Kids are kids. They don’t change fundamentally from one generation to the next. But what does change — and is important to know — is the research that impacts how experts think about child development and learning, as well as best practices in child-rearing. Staying up to date with research can help you give your grandchild the best start now.

Here are some key changes in research since today’s grandparents first became parents:

  • Learning begins at birth. From the moment a baby is born, they are gathering information about their environment. The “active learning” of newborns is based on research showing that from birth infants pay attention and respond to people and situations by shifting gaze or kicking legs. From the start they are learning about other people as well as objects, sounds and language. Long before they can speak, they understand and respond to language; a study showed that babies as young as four months repeatedly responded in the same way to certain words.
  • Problem-solving skills start early. Rather than viewing toddlers as passive recipients of information, current research finds that children as young as 18 months will work to solve problems if given the chance. The key to this finding? The opportunity to use their hands and minds — such as stacking blocks — and actively participating in play.
  • Early brain growth sets the stage for later learning. Research has found that 90 percent of brain growth occurs in the first five years of life. The first years are critical for building brain cells that help children learn later. Talking, reading and singing to a baby from birth, playing with infants and toddlers, and engaging preschoolers in learning will help lay the foundation for success in kindergarten and beyond.
  • Preschool is essential for learning. At one time, the goal of preschools was to help children learn to socialize. While early socialization with peers and adults outside the family is important, experts now emphasize the importance of preschool in early childhood learning and readiness for kindergarten. Preschool is important for development that is not only social, but emotional and cognitive. Preschool can help children develop early math, science, language and writing skills, introduce new ideas and knowledge, and spark curiosity.
  • Learning through screens is up for debate. While educational content on TV and other screens was once hailed as helpful, the use of screens with infants and children is now being questioned. Studies show that children prefer to read a book with a person rather than passively watch a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen use for babies up to eighteen months; after that, the organization suggests limiting screen time to no more than one hour a day of high-quality educational programming, preferably with a caregiver.
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