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It may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it’s good to be able to confirm what we already suspected: Challenging young children to do things they might not seem ready for (eg learning a new language!), is definitely the best approach, according to a new study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NUST). Studies have shown that early mental and physical stimulation of children boosts the brain, leading to greater skills.

It would appear that the problem is rooted in some of the old child-rearing theories of the early 1900s, when it was thought that hastening physical and mental development would be detrimental due to the idea that development should happen “naturally”.

Neuroscientist, Audrey Van de Meer of the NUST observed in tests that the neurons in the brains of young children rapidly increase in both number and specialization as the child learns new skills and becomes more mobile. She states that “Many people believe that children up to three years old only need cuddles and nappy changes, but studies show that rats raised in cages have less dendritic branching in the brain than rats raised in an environment with climbing and hiding places and tunnels. Research also shows that children born into cultures where early stimulation is considered important, develop earlier than Western children do,”

Research in neuroscience since the 1970s has greatly improved our understanding of how young brains work and all the evidence indicates that early intervention and stimulation is the way to go. For example, until fairly recently, it was believed that children could only learn one language properly. Foreign parents were advised not to speak their native language to their children, because it could impede the child’s language development. Today we think completely differently, and there are examples of children who speak four or five languages fluently without suffering any language confusion or delays in linguistic development.

Brain research suggests that in these cases the native language area in the brain is activated when children speak the languages. If we study a foreign language after the age of seven, other areas of the brain are used when we speak the language, explains Van der Meer.
Evidence also suggests that it is important to learn a foreign language by interacting with real people; an online course, for example, simply won’t produce the desired result.

“Research shows that children don’t learn language by watching someone talk on a screen, it has to be real people who expose them to the language,” says van der Meer.