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Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system, which comprises of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (all other nerves that generally send and receive signals to and from the brain).

There are many branches in neuroscience, predominantly focussing on understanding the physiology of the brain and how it works. The ones that are most relevant for the Early Years practitioner include those that examine brain development and its relationship with behaviour and emotion.

We now know that 90% of brain growth happens before the age of 3 with estimates of more than 1 million new synapses (neural connections) being formed every single second in this time frame, faster than at any other time in life.

The brain has fascinated scientists for years, but neuroscience is still a relatively new field. However, the pace of new research is increasing, and we should be leveraging the newfound knowledge to help shape our approach to early years with the goal of improving health, behaviour and developmental outcomes.

By using imaging tools to study brain activity in response to varying stimuli, we have a better understanding of how the children’s environment and interactivity with others can affect their physical, emotional and behavioural development. This understanding builds on Early Years practitioners’ ability to notice signs of thriving and faltering, helps them to design the optimal environment for their children, and clarifies how different interactions with the children can lead to positive long-term outcomes.

Importantly, neuroscience for the Early Years practitioner should not replace the well-established practices that have come about from observational theorist research, such as from the likes of Bowlby, Ainsworth and Piaget. This is all still useful and relevant. Neuroscience in part helps explain some of those observations, but it can also take our understanding a step further, explaining why certain approaches do or don’t work. This is why neuroscience is an exciting addition to the armoury of the Early Years practitioner and could well become essential in the future.