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Stimulate toddlers’ brains or set them back for decades 


Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Scientists and psychologists are warning that failure to properly stimulate toddlers’ brains during nursery years could set them back for decades, as figures show that almost 130,000 children a year are falling behind before they even reach school. Thirteen key figures in child development and neuroscience are urging the government to make play-time ‘brain-time’ under the guidance of a qualified early years teacher after identifying these years as a ‘lightbulb moment’ for children.

In ‘Lighting Up Young Brains’, a new scientific briefing from Save the Children and the Institute of Child Health at University College London, neuroscientists point to how toddlers’ brains form connections at double the rate of adults’. Hence the briefing emphasizes that children’s pre-school years form a critical opportunity for the brain to develop key skills like speech and language.

Failure to develop adequate language skills can leave children struggling to learn in the classroom and unable to catch up. Last year almost 130,000 children in England – 6 children in every reception class - struggled with their early language skills, equivalent to every 5 year old pupil in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle combined.

Professor Torsten Baldeweg, Professor of Neuroscience and Child Health, from University College London’s Institute of Child health, said:

“Why is it important to stimulate children before they go to school? It is precisely this period where we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed. We need input to maintain them for the rest of our lives. And we know that if these connections are not formed they, to variable degrees, will suffer longer term consequences to their physical, cognitive but also emotional development. That’s perhaps one of the most important lessons we’ve learned from these studies - that these early years are absolutely critical. Much more must be done to boost children’s early learning.”

Despite powerful scientific evidence, new polling shows that parents do not realise the importance of the pre-school years on brain development. The poll, commissioned by Save the Children, a leading member of the Read On. Get On. coalition campaign, found that:

  • 61% of parents, and 68% of dads, said school was the most important learning period for children;
  • Almost half of all parents (47%) have low expectations for their child’s early learning and only hope for children to know 100 words by their third birthday – half as many as the government recommends;
  • More than half of parents (56%) and two thirds of dads (65%) said they didn’t get enough help and advice to understand their child’s early learning.

Through a combination of talking, word games and singing, evidence shows that play-time can be made ‘brain-time’. This can stimulate children’s early language and communication skills, ensuring they have the building blocks for learning by the time they reach school. But, without enough support at home or in nursery, children can fall behind. Save the Children is calling for a new focus on toddlers, urging the government to ensure every nursery has a qualified early years teacher to support children and their parents with early learning. Half a million children are spending up to 15 hours a week in private nurseries deprived of the benefits of a qualified early years teacher.

Gareth Jenkins, Director of UK Poverty for Save the Children, said:

“Toddler’s brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than any other time in life. We’ve got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school, as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind.

“To tackle the nation’s education gap, we need a new national focus on early learning to give children the best start – not just increasing free childcare hours, but boosting nursery quality to help support children and parents with early learning.”

Parents and carers are often juggling work and childcare so ‘Top Tips’ for quick and easy brain stimulation have been developed.

Ends

For more informaion, filming oportunities or interview requests, please contact Amy Steadman, Save the Children Press Office a.steadman@savethechildren.org.uk 0203 763 0093 or Gemma Parkin, Head of News, Save the Children g.parkin@savethechildren.org.uk +44 (0)203 763 0504

media@savethechildren.org.uk 24 hour on-call press number 07831650409

Spokespeople available

Gareth Jenkins, Director of UK Poverty, Save the Children

Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Oxleas NHS Trust, Expert on The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds.

Dr Sam Wass, Developmental psychologist based at the University of East London and Cambridge University, Expert on The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds

Dr Ranj, CBeebies doctor, specialising in child’s health

Emma Chichester Clarke, children’s author, Blue Kangaroo series

Louise Weiss-Croft – UCL Research Associate, ICH Developmental Neurosciences Prog, Institute of Child Health, Faculty of Pop Health Sciences

Professor Torsten Baldeweg, Professor of Neuroscience and Child Health, University College London’s Institute of Child health

Multi-media

Footage of good practice of early years can be viewed here

EEG footage – shows toddler being read to by her mother as her 130 brainwaves are scanned by EEG scanner. Can be viewed here (mother and child both available for interview)

Notes to editors

Read On. Get On. is a reading campaign driven by a coalition of organisations, communities, parents and schools, businesspeople, media and politicians: www.readongeton.org.uk

Top tips for parents and careers can be downloaded here

Polling results can be viewed here

130,000 statistics

Government statistics from the early years foundation stage profile show that one in five children (20%) were behind at age five in language development in 2015, which equals just over 129,000 children. Department for Education (2016) Early years foundation stage profile results: 2014 to 2015. Department for Education: London. Available to view here

In a joint statement, thirteen leading scientists, psychologists and education specialists said:

“The early years are a golden opportunity to stimulate the brain and support children to learn. By the time they arrive at school, a child’s brain has already done so much of the growing and developing that it will do in its lifetime.

“The evidence shows that unless the brain is stimulated as a toddler, the set-back in child development could be felt for decades. This is extremely concerning to us. This lightbulb moment must not be ignored.”

  1. Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Oxleas NHS Trust, Expert on The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds.
  2. Dr Tanya Byron, Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Professor in the Public Understanding of Science, clinician, journalist, author and broadcaster
  3. Dr Ranj Singh, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
  4. Dr Sam Wass, Developmental psychologist based at the University of East London and Cambridge University, Expert on The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds
  5. Professor Iram Siraj, OBE, Institute of Education, University College London
  6. Professor Pamela Sammons, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Education, University of Oxford
  7. Naomi Eisenstadt CB, Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality at Scottish Government, Scottish Government, University of Oxford, Education and Social Policy Depts
  8. Kamini Gadhok MBE, CEO Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists
  9. Professor Julie Dockrell, Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL Institute of Education
  10. Professor Geoff Lindsay, Director of the Centre of Educational Development, Appraisal and Research, University of Warwick
  11. Professor Irene Tracey, University of Oxford, Departments of Anaesthetics and Clinical Neurology and is the Nuffield Chair in Anaesthetic Science and Associate Head of Medical Sciences Division
  12. Dr Louise Weiss-Croft, UCL Research Associate, ICH Developmental Neurosciences Prog, Institute of Child Health, Faculty of Pop Health Sciences
  13. Professor Edward Melhuish, University of Oxford, Department of Education