Why is neuroplasticity important for children's motor development and learning
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the process of brain development when we practice a skill over and over again.
For example, the photo of Phoebe below shows her practicing the skill of picking up blueberries one by one, to the point where she can pick up multiple blueberries without dropping them.
The more the brain and muscles practice, the more neuroplasticity occurs and the more coordinated our movements become.
Every time Phoebe picks up a blueberry or piece of food from her high chair tray she learns from her previous motor skill mistakes. Her brain adjusts her next move so that she has less chance of making the same mistake again. This
pattern of learning helps Phoebe to make coordinated movements while eating --> dropping and squishing less blueberries with the more practice that her brain and body experiences.
Every workshop that I run I explain the process of neuroplasticity (learning or
refining a new skill) by explaining the process of making a daisy chain. Imagine the process of making a daisy chain, connecting each daisy link by link. The flower bud of the daisy chain refers to the 'computer system' section of our neurons. The branch of the daisy chain refers to the branches of our neurons. These branches connect one neuron to the next, to the next, to the next.
Just like building a daisy chain, the more you practice, the longer the daisy chain or neural pathway becomes.
Every time Phoebe makes a mistake and drops a blueberry, her eyes and hands tell her brain that she has made an error and her brain and body adjusts her next move with a small change in technique, force, speed, etc. Phoebe's brain is building another daisy link, or another neural (nerve) pathway with every error (dropping or squishing the blueberry) that she makes. The more Phoebe practices this skill, the stronger her neural pathway becomes (the longer the daisy chain), until her movements are more accurate and smooth.
Who is building the daisy chain?
When I work with parents who are finding it frustrating to get their children to follow instructions or complete an every day task independently, I observe a similar theme. The mum or dad is telling the child; 'put your shoes on', 'eat your toast', 'sit down', etc. When the child doesn't respond quick enough, the parent puts their shoes on for the child, hand/spoon feeds the child, or sits the child on their lap instead of waiting for the child to complete the task without parental involvement.
A parent who is trying to support and help their child is actually creating their own daisy chain (neural pathway) for these skills.
Although their child is involved in the process, unless the child physically does these actions themself, their daisy chain isn't growing longer. The child's brain isn't getting any closer to developing the motor skill independently, until these motor skills are given the opportunity to make mistakes, refine, and practice, over and over again.
As messy as eating blueberries can be, at some stage each child needs to be able to have the opportunity to practice each skill so that they can make as many mistakes as their brain and body needs, with the ultimate goal being --> be able to complete the activity independently in a smooth and coordinated manner. Until the child makes mistakes, watches and feels their mistakes, they are unable to become independent in that skill. So my advice is to always imagine whether you would still want to be putting the child's shoes on in 6 months time?