Why relationships are so important when building a child’s brain

Why relationships are so important when building a child’s brain

I’ve been writing about how children’s brains are developed, and in particular how physical literacy helps build a strong brain.

Building a brain is like building a house, with a strong foundation and four walls of cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. And early experiences become the building blocks that construct the brain.

While brain architecture — foundations, walls, and building blocks — explains what is built in the brain, how your child’s brain is built is dependent on relationships.

“Serve and return”: The interaction of relationships

Scientists have learned that it is not about whether nature or nurture is more important when raising young children. We now know that we actually “nurture nature”. Just as a house is built according to a blueprint or set of plans, genetics (or nature) provides the blueprint for the child’s brain.

But a house doesn’t build itself. Contractors, plumbers, painters, and electricians need to do their work. A child’s brain doesn’t build itself either.

A healthy environment, which actually starts during the prenatal period, is the nurturing that helps a child’s brain reach its full potential. Interactions with caring adults are a key component of a nurturing environment. These are considered to be “serve and return” relationships because they are not one-directional, but imply mutual response and activity.

Fifth in a series

This series of articles tells the story of a child’s early brain development and how it relates to the development of physical literacy.

  1. Building your child’s brain is like building a house
  2. Building your child’s brain through physical literacy
  3. Build your child’s brain by giving them lots of experiences to explore
  4. Active play experiences help young children develop physical literacy
  5. Why relationships are so important when building a child’s brain
  6. How to support the ‘air traffic control system’ of your child’s brain

Think of an interaction between an adult and a child as being like a game of tennis. One person serves the ball and someone on the other side of the net returns the ball. If players on both sides are attentive and responsive, the ball goes back and forth many times and the game is exciting for everyone. So it is with young children as they form relationships with caring adults.

And “serve and return” starts very early in life when a baby coos and mom smiles back or when a baby wiggles when dad tickles. These responsive interactions form synapses or connections in the child’s brain. As these interactions are repeated, the synapses are strengthened.

Children need a network of others with different skills to help build their brains. High quality and reliable relationships are key to making the most of experiences and provide the support necessary to build a strong brain that will last a lifetime.

The most important relationships in building brain architecture are those which are stable, familiar, and nurturing. This short video from Harvard University explains how this process works.

Physical activity and positive relationships are a 2-for-1 deal

As parents, we are careful about who participates in our children’s lives. We choose early childhood educators, babysitters, and friends thoughtfully. But we often think about activity programs only in terms of the new skills our children will learn.

When our children participate in physical activity programs, we are inviting new adults and children to form relationships with our children. Our goal may be to have our children learn new physical literacy skills and have fun. But the leaders of these programs will also contribute to our children’s lives — hopefully as positive role models.

High Five knows how important quality physical programming is and has created a standard to ensure that all children are safe, happy, and getting the most of recreation and sport opportunities.

Things to consider when choosing programs for your child

When you choose a physical literacy program for your child, look closely at both the experiences your child will have while in the program as well as the types of relationships your child will develop.

Ask to meet the coach or leader. Watch a session before you register to see if you are comfortable with the approaches the leader uses. Is the leader “High Five” trained? Will this person become a positive role model for your child?

Do the children in the group seem to enjoy being with one another? Are they learning to play respectfully and ethically as a team?

If you have any doubts, choose another program. If you like what you see, know that your child will have many more positive relationships to help build a healthy brain.

How you can use “serve and return” at home

At home, “serve and return” means noticing and responding to your child’s cues.

  • Your infant starts to wiggle and squirm: perhaps that means, “Daddy, I want to bounce on your knee!”
  • Your toddler is restless and not listening: perhaps that means, “Mommy, chase me”
  • Your preschooler is bouncing all over the house: perhaps that means, “Let’s wrestle!”
  • Your child whines about going outside to play by himself: perhaps that means picking up the ball and inviting him to play a game of soccer with you.
  • Your child spends too much time in front of her iPad: perhaps that means you need to close your laptop, put away your phone, and role model a healthy lifestyle; take your child along with you.

Children are active “servers” and it is up to as parents to return that serve. What cues does your child serve that you can return in an active healthy way?

2 responses to “Why relationships are so important when building a child’s brain

  1. Love your “serve and return” phrase and ideas!

    As parents we can gain much deeper relationships with our kids through observation – seeing and hearing their cues.

    Kids are so much better at adults than communicating their needs, but often as adults we get too caught up in our to-do list of responsibilities, when our biggest responsibility is the emotional development of our kids.

    Thanks for a great article and reminder!

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