Many parents feel like they are under continuous pressure to make sure that their child has the best possible chance in life, and at no time is this more evident than in those precious years before they go to school.

In June 2000 the UK Government published its report about early years education, the period between birth and first going to school at about 5 years of age. The report, Early Years Learning, was stimulated by the concern that perhaps ‘too much too young’ might be harmful. The report summarises the scientific research on the development of the brain and the psychological development of children, and of studies that compared the outcomes of different types of pre-school education.

The idea that children should study things like maths and languages or music as soon as possible is founded on aspects of developmental neurobiology (how the brain develops) which shows that the brain does, indeed, experience a huge amount of change in the first few years of life. But, the report says, other scientists also say that not enough is known about the brain to link these ideas directly to instruction and learning. In fact, the idea that the brain only changes when we are infants is, of course, nonsense. How else would you be able to learn to drive, or manage your bank account?

Our products are designed with learning in mind, but not with learning as a specific goal.

Let’s think about how language is acquired.

In the first 12 months of life, a baby categorises the sounds needed to speak its own language. New-born babies are able to distinguish between all speech sounds, but after 12 months lose the ability to distinguish between sounds to which they are not exposed. For example, Japanese people can rarely distinguish between the sound R and L. Because their language does not contain distinct R and L sounds Japanese new-borns are not often exposed to them. Because of this, we’ll soon be making our products available in Japanese, Chinese, Russian and other languages which have sounds unique to them. It is not about teaching a second language, but simply to familiarise children with the sounds of different languages. Let us know if you would like these sooner, and we’ll get cracking!

After about a year, babies begin to turn sounds into words, and in a process called ‘fast-mapping’ babies begin to associate words with objects. They do this by hearing other people around them, so one of the most important things a parent does is simply to talk to their baby. By two years most children will have the command of between 20 and 50 single words, and by now the learning process accelerates at a fantastic rate. By the time they are five most children will have a vocabulary of around 5,000 words, and this rate of learning continues into primary education and only starts to slow down in adolescence. Children develop grammatical rules without being explicitly taught them, and will naturally experiment with how language fits together in their early years, sometimes with hilarious effect. Children really like playing with sounds and you only have to listen to a playground to hear language being experimented with through games, songs and nonsense rhymes.

We all pick up new words all of the time and learning never really stops. While you sing-a-long with your child, you too will pick up new words in other languages. Why not impress your friends by singing a song in Spanish, or French?

The activity of singing along is really useful to help a child acquire general language skills. Adult humans appear to have an innate ability to form word sounds that have an almost song-like quality when talking to very young children. Psychologists call it Motherese, and adults do it naturally all over the world. Rhyming is also very helpful, and this may account for why nursery songs remain one of the most popular ways for parents to interact with their children – everyone loves it, it is great fun, and your child is learning all the time. Good spoken language skills naturally combine with story telling and reading, although again, the Government’s report finds that it is not necessarily those who read at a very young age who will continue to become stronger readers later in life. The most powerful influence for a child is simply to have access to books in a supportive environment without putting pressure on them with structured learning. In the end, the best way to help your child is just to have fun talking, singing, and telling and reading stories together. Turn off the telly, and sing, dance and bang a drum to a nursery rhyme in different languages and you’ll all have much more fun, all the while learning things as if by accident.

Of course exactly how children learn, what scientists call cognitive development, is much more complicated and a lot more has yet to be discovered. We do know, as you will, that children begin to develop basic numeracy skills quite naturally in their early years; another reason why nursery rhymes that include counting games are very popular. Being able to count is an important step in helping children to understand about sharing.

In short, children in their early years learn through their own experience of interacting with the people and objects around them. Playing, exploring, talking and just having fun in an easy going supportive atmosphere seems to do the trick. According to the Government, there is no clear evidence that suggests a specially enriched environment is particularly beneficial, and in some circumstances, formal tuition of numbers and letters at a very young age can be counter-productive.

If you would like to read the Government’s report, let us know and we’ll send you a copy. It’s free, and we’ll simply email it to you.

Below is a summary of other research and discussions about children and learning that we thought you might find interesting.

The Mozart Effect.

Ah ha! This most controversial claim, that listening to Mozart will turn your child into the next Prime Minister, or Nobel Prize winner, is much misunderstood. The idea comes from a test conducted among college aged students, not very young children, in America in 1993, and again with a different group in 1995. The test was a spatial reasoning task. Over sixteen exercises, the students had to work out in their minds the shape of pieces of paper that had been folded and cut. The whole group were tested on the first day, and then split into three groups to be re-tested over the next 4 days. Before each test, one group listened to ten minutes of a particular piece of Mozart’s music, another group ten minutes of silence, and the third a mix of different sorts of music and spoken word. The Mozart group performed better than the others. However, according to Steven Demorest and Steven Morrison in Music Educators Journal this proved nothing, not least the fact that they didn’t test Mozart against another classical composer. They said, “Though the results are interesting, there is a long way to go before establishing any direct connection between musical organization and the inner workings of the mind. […] Having parents rushing out to buy Mozart CDs will certainly not hurt children and may provide a certain type of cultural enrichment-at least involving one culture. The harm comes when these results are viewed either as a rationale for music education, or as a curriculum guide.” Claudia Winkleman, writing in the Daily Telegraph said that her son Jake, who she had banned from watching too much telly, “found it tricky to dance to Mozart, so that’s been taken off the music rota,” he prefered Vivaldi and Bach she says. So, there we have it. Mozart is, well, Mozart and as much as anything what our children listen to probably only comes down to taste. In our experience, children like all sorts of music, for all sorts of reasons and that’s good in itself.

Active not passive

It is easy to forgive the harrassed parent who plops their child in front of the telly to get some peace, or simply to get some time to do the million other things that need to be done in a day. Learning happens through action, says Donna Brink Fox in her article Music and the Baby’s Brain: Early Experiances. Donna says that it is “active engagement, not passive response” that develops brains. Changes in brain structure in adult musicians is shown to be caused primarily by the active making of music. Juliet’s husband Simon, who plays the guitar, can testify to that too and says that making music is very rewarding. Passive listening is useful too, especially for changing moods, but brain development is happening when music is being made. Donna suggests that there is a strong connection between music and language development, and stresses that for young children, music making is just part of their lives. “Music is woven into social encounters,” she says, and that music making is “an ongoing individual and social part of everyday life”. Get out the pots and pans, blow a whistle, ring a bell, and play along with the songs.