The fundamental mistake we make is thinking that our 2-year-old is a little 7-year-old and that the earlier we get them ready to be 7, by teaching them numerousy and literacy, the better off they will be later in life. That's just not how your child's brain develops."
Nathan Wallis on the first seven years.
Article by Nadine Hickman
If you’re a parent or have anything to do with teaching and developing children, and you haven’t attended one of Nathan Wallis’ seminars, please please add it to your ‘must do’ list. As a neuroscience educator and child development expert Nathan captivates audiences 200+ times a year at sell out events all around New Zealand. His popularity is due to his ability to communicate complex brain science in a simple, lively and engaging way, and give super practical, life changing advice to parents and educators.
My introduction to Nathan’s seminars was only late last year. He spoke on the first seven years of a child’s brain development and told us about the things we can do as parents to aid our children to develop into confident, happy people who live full and meaningful lives. What more could a parent want for their child? I’m sure many in the audience, like myself with older children, wished they had heard these insights earlier.
It seems incredible that some very simple ways of living and interacting with our children, like engaging in regular attuned one-to-one conversation with our baby in the first year of their life, or not force feeding them letters and numbers before the age of seven, can have a profound impact on their outcomes throughout their life. This is science, yet we don’t know it. Why don’t we know it?
It can take a lot to shift an ingrained culture, the good news is with dynamic presenters like Nathan working hard to spread the word, we can hope for positive shifts in thinking in the near future. So how can we as individual parents aid this process? Well, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “If you want to change the world, start with yourself”.
I caught up with Nathan for a phone chat to find out more about these important first seven years and what parents can do to help wire their child for happiness and positive life outcomes.
Nathan says, “One of the barriers to change is that people are culturally informed rather than research informed. People don’t know that the more a child plays under the age of seven, the more resilient they will be later on. People just go with the flow worrying that their kid is behind and measure how well they are doing when they get to school by if they can write their name or not”.
Why are the first seven years so important?
Nathan says it is all to do with how the brain works. The first seven years is about building the foundation for the brain. This can be divided into two parts - the first 1000 days and age two through to seven.
Developing your child’s brain in the first 1000 days.
Your child’s outcomes at age 32 can be statistically predicted with a really high degree of accuracy based on the data of what has happened within the first 1000 days - from conception through to about two and a half years old. It may be complex science, but the practical applications are very simple. There are two fundamental requirements for optimal brain development in the first 1000 days.
Developing your child’s brain from age two - seven.
This ancient wisdom by Aristotle, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”, is now demonstrated by modern science.
“The early years represent a real window of opportunity to build a foundation for human beings that are going to be capable of so much. What we are doing right now is creating a generation of adolescents who are encumbered with anxiety and depression, and we have the highest teen suicide rate in the world. The human brain has so much more potential than that, and the key to understanding this is the first seven years of life,” explains Nathan.
The frontal cortex, the logical fourth brain is what we typically associate with higher intelligence, numeracy and literacy, but this brain doesn’t come fully online until seven. The trouble is we are rushing children through the crucial time between the ages of two and seven when they are developing their emotional brain because we want to skip this step and go straight to their logical fourth brain.
“The big mistake we can make is by thinking that the earlier we encourage letters and numbers, the cleverer the child will be. But really, what the research is telling us is that before the age of seven this is not in the best interest of brain development, and has little benefit,” says Nathan.
The key point I picked out is something I think all parents of children under the age of seven should have up in black and white on their wall.
It’s not how smart they are, it’s how smart they feel.
Nathan’s advice is that we need to be careful how we define success for our children under seven. If we are going to define how smart our child is by how well they can spell, add, read and write… then how smart they are under seven doesn’t matter at all. What matters is how clever they feel. That becomes their disposition. If your child hates learning and thinks they're not good enough at six and seven, it's not a good indication of a lifelong learner.
It’s important to note that by ‘freeplay’ Nathan doesn’t mean free range. The role of the teacher of a pre-seven year old child is a very important one. The role of the teacher (or a parent at home) is to enhance the child’s learning, without overwhelming them, by seizing the opportunity to integrate learning into their play.
For all those parents like me, who have children older than seven, have we missed the boat? To answer this question Nathan likes to quote Bob the Builder, “Can we fix it, yes we can!”. Thanks to neuroplasticity, an article for another time, we do have the ability to rewire our brains at any time. However Nathan is quick to add, the earlier we start doing the right things, the better.
To find out when Nathan is next speaking in a town near you take a look at the events section on his Facebook page Nathan Wallis | Facebook.
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