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11 Jun 2024

Guest blog: Unlocking potential – Investing in the first 1000 days for brain development and school readiness

Guest blog: Unlocking potential – Investing in the first 1000 days for brain development and school readiness
Clare Stead, Founder of Oliiki, explains why the first 1000 days of a child's life are so important and what this means for nursery managers and owners.

One of the most exciting discoveries in recent years for the early years profession has been the increased understanding of the incredible growth and development that happens in a child's brain during the first 1000 days of life. From conception to age two, babies are incredibly busy, building their brains by creating neural pathways at a staggering rate, laying the foundation for all their future learning.

That's why the new statutory framework in the UK puts such an emphasis on ensuring those early years experiences positively contribute to brain development and school readiness for Key Stage 1. It's a game-changer for nurseries in terms of how we approach caring for and educating our youngest learners.

Why are the first 1000 days so crucial?

A newborn baby has most of the brain cells they'll ever have – a staggering 100 billion! However, what they don't yet have are all the connections between those cells. That's where early experiences come in. Every time a baby is touched, rocked, sung to or engaged through play, new neural pathways are being formed and strengthened. It's those pathways that will determine how well a child absorbs and processes information down the road. The more robust the pathways formed in the first 1000 days, the better prepared that child will be for all the learning to come.

These first 1000 days are absolutely critical for rapidly building the foundational neural pathways in a baby's brain. Each positive interaction and caring experience like cuddling, singing or playing creates new neural connections that reinforce the brain's developing architecture. The more abundant and sturdy these pathways become in the early years, the better equipped a child will be to effectively absorb and make sense of all kinds of information, skills and experiences throughout life.

Establishing strong neural foundations in infancy enhances academic learning abilities but also promotes positive social-emotional development, cultivates crucial self-regulation abilities, supports improved mental health, and even contributes to robust physical well-being. It provides the ultimate head start for lifelong success across all developmental areas.

So, what does this mean for nursery owners and managers?

It means those baby rooms just became your most important educational spaces! Investing in high-quality baby rooms with sensory-rich environments and highly trained staff is an investment in brain-building at its most pivotal stage.

Think about filling your baby rooms with experiences that engage all the senses through exploration with safe, stimulating materials. Prioritise language development by having practitioners narrate daily routines and consciously introduce new vocabulary words. Create cosy spaces that facilitate bonding between infants and caregivers, and ensure they are used each day. Every warm embrace, silly song and moment of undivided attention is literally shaping a young brain for life! 

This is also where the power of play becomes so important. Play is the natural means for learning in the early years. When babies and toddlers are allowed to explore materials freely, engage in pretend scenarios and move their bodies, they are exciting those neural connections, building new pathways and cementing new skills. When practitioners and parents understand the role of that play in a child's development, they are more engaged, connected and committed to providing enabling, intentional environments for nurturing development.

Parent partnerships

Helping parents and practitioners to grasp the massive developmental upsides of play is a game-changer. When they truly see how freely exploring materials, acting out imaginary scenarios and moving their bodies allows babies and toddlers to fire up neural connections and skills, the lightbulb goes on. They start to understand why your days are jam-packed with those kinds of playful learning experiences. With that deeper insight into the "whys" behind your play-based approach, parents are less likely to brush it off as basic childcare. Instead, they appreciate that you're purposefully creating those simple, yet powerful play setups and activities tailored to target specific areas of young kids' development. For everyone involved, it's like getting a sneak peek into how playing equals brain building for the littlest ones.

Speaking of parents, keeping them involved and invested in their child's early learning and helping them to understand their role in their child's outcomes is absolutely crucial during this pivotal first 1000-day window. Nurseries have an amazing opportunity to support and educate parents on attachment, brain development, age-appropriate learning activities and more, as quite often we are the first consistent professionals a parent may have encountered in their parenting journey!

Connecting early and often with new families (often while they are still pregnant) can help you show them their important role in their child's development. Helping them to understand the power of play for development throughout the first 1000 days reinforces those all-important home learning experiences. Holding parent workshops, sharing information on what to do each day with their baby, celebrating developmental milestones together, and maintaining open communication are great ways to promote nursery-home connections.

The biggest payoff

Ultimately, the biggest payoff from prioritising quality early childhood education and parent partnerships is getting our youngest learners positioned for success once they start school. Children who experience warm, nurturing care coupled with ample opportunities for play-based exploration and learning show stronger cognitive abilities, better self-regulation, higher confidence, and improved social skills. In other words, they are school ready!

Those foundational neural pathways formed in the first 1000 days through engaging experiences, caring relationships and play pave the way for a child to thrive in a formal learning setting. They enter their first classrooms able to stay focused, follow multi-step directions, regulate their emotions, think creatively and interact positively with peers. 

For nursery owners and managers committed to adhering to the new statutory guidance, doubling down on baby room quality and family partnerships is an absolute must. It's an investment that will yield incredible returns in the form of curious, capable learners prepared for primary school and beyond. The first 1000 days set the stage for lifelong success – let's make sure we get them off to an amazing start!



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