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Shaping Young Minds: The Role of Neuroplasticity in Child Development

Following on from our brain series that explored the different regions of the brain and mindfulness’ effect on them, we will now delve into the brains’ ability to change: its neuroplasticity.

We’ll discuss how understanding neuroplasticity offers insights for teaching and parenting, highlighting the importance of strategies that support brain development and learning. These strategies include mindfulness, a powerful tool for encouraging neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity for children's mental health

What is neuroplasticity exactly?

Let’s first break down the word ‘neuroplasticity’. ‘Neuro’ refers to the nervous system- the brain and spinal cord, and ‘plasticity’ refers to it’s ability to be shaped or moulded.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of new experiences, stimuli, or injuries by forming rewiring its connections, growing new neurons and modifying its structures. It has many implications for learning, memory, creativity, recovery, and mental health. It is also part of acquiring new skills and coping with stress. When you repeatedly do an activity, you strengthen the neural connections involved, which develops the associated regions of your brain. 

Neuroplasticity in children

The brain is incredibly malleable in the formative years. Children can make changes quickly and effectively - unlike us broken adults, who can be much more set in our ways. This is why experiences in children play a crucial role in shaping cognitive and emotional growth.

Neuroplasticity in children is crucial for developing cognitive functions such as language, problem solving skills, and social skills. Play-based learning, exposure to a wide range of stimuli, and supportive environments can enhance the ability for neuroplasticity. For example, children who are encouraged to explore and ask questions, develop stronger neural connections in innovation and critical thinking. Children’s brains are often called sponges- ready to absorb information and experiences. This is why it is important to provide enriching, stimulating environments at home and in educational settings.  

How does Neuroplasticity inform teaching and parenting:

Growth mindset: Teaching children about neuroplasticity and educating through a growth mindset approach helps them embrace mistakes as opportunities to evolve and grow. We can teach our children to celebrate our mistakes and encourage them, as through them we will inevitably learn and grow. There are many activities that can enhance this in young brains, 'the power of yet' is a phrase you can encourage your children to use. For instance, I’m not there yet in Maths, but will be one day. You can use metaphors, and analogies for children to understand the concept of neuroplasticity.

Providing enriched environments: If there are a variety of sensory and motor experiences in the child’s life at school and at home, different areas of the brain are stimulated. Exposing children to diverse learning opportunities- from music, art, sports, and problem-solving activities.

Multisensory learning: This form of learning involves all the senses- taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch to help pupils interact with what they want to learn. Trips, experiments and active exploration are examples of sensory learning. Our Stix remotes promote neuroplasticity by engaging the senses through mindfulness activities, teaching children about the five senses.

Promoting physical activity: Physical exercise has been shown to enhance neuroplasticity by increasing blood flow to the brain and promoting the release of growth factors.

Challenging children: Presenting children with tasks that require problem solving, critical thinking and creativity can promote the formation of new neural pathways and strengthen existing connections. Teaching children about neuroplasticity can encourage them to try things that are out of their comfort zone, knowing that they will improve despite starting at a low level.

Children practicing mindfulness together

How does mindfulness for kids foster neuroplasticity?

Research shows that mindfulness can physically change brain structures, promoting positive change in the brain pathways involved in stress, focus and attention, memory and mood. It effectively changes the way in which the brain reacts to certain situations. Teaching children mindfulness techniques can enhance their emotional resilience when faced with challenges.

As we covered in our brain series, practicing mindfulness increases grey matter density in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. This boosts the capacity for rational thought, planning and impulse control. It also decreases grey matter in the amygdala, a structure associated with stress, fear, anxiety and our fight or flight response.

Stix Monster Push Ups

'Mindful Pushups'

Some of the main brain systems to benefit from mindfulness are those involved in the ability to focus and regain focus when we get off track. For instance, the Stix Mindfulness of Breath activities teach children to focus on their breath. Any time attention wanders beyond the simple act of breathing, notice can be taken, and attention can be redirected to breath. This focus on the breath, can be likened to a push up. The more mindfulness push ups you do, the more your brain changes to be able to control your attention and maintain concentration. These basic mindfulness push-ups can also help suppress the default mode network, a brain network associated with mind wandering, self-centred cravings, and other off-task distractions.

In essence, mindfulness cultivates a brain environment conducive to ongoing learning and adaptation. It reinforces positive neural pathways and diminishes the influence of stress-related and distraction-prone networks. These changes embody the principles of neuroplasticity, demonstrating the brain's remarkable ability to adapt and improve through mindful practices.



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