A ton of research released in the mid-to-late 1990s blew out of the water the previously held notion that until children were closer to school-age, their minds weren’t ready to broach basic skills and concepts behind writing, reasoning, and reading. (I highly recommend Rethinking the Brain for an overview.)
Turns out that during these first three underestimated years of a child’s life the brain is a hotbed of activity. This is probably no surprise to many who’ve had or spent time with babes. A child's experiences create trillions of new connections (synapses) that lay the ground work for the brain's ability to efficiently carry out different processes again in the future. The more frequently a path/connection is traversed, the more likely it'll "stick" and require less energy, fewer tries.
Brains of human newborns weigh only one-fourth the weight of a human adult's brain--as compared to newborn macaques and chimps (65% and 45% of adult weight, respectively--from Rethinking the Brain). The rest of the brain development happens after birth. Harry Chugani, MD put it well when he said "...Mother Nature didn't think it was advisable for genetic composition alone to dictate brain wiring." (1997 Wayne Medicine article, “Brain Surges”.)
Yes, this does mean that we can and should do as much as we can with early childhood education to help get children primed to succeed in school, to expose them regularly to varied and joyous experiences. And, yes, this is very exciting and important.
But children also need help wiring their feelings, learning how to comfort themselves and rein in their highs and lows. In large part, babies are not able to regulate their emotions independently. Whatever the stress, they need parents and caregivers to calm them:
The repetition of this pattern helps a baby's brain eventually learn how to regulate these responses on its own.
Lack of effective emotional regulation works against optimal brain development. Cortisol, a stress hormone, makes brain cells and synapses susceptible to destruction. Children who are loved, comforted, and nurtured as infants "are less likely than other children to respond to minor stresses by producing cortisol than other children. And when they do respond by producing cortisol, they can more rapidly and efficiently turn off this response." (...again Rethinking the Brain.)
All of this is to say that while it's so important to help young children build skills for success in school, it's just as...ok, I'd say more...important for children to feel attachment and love and to know that it can be counted on. Make it a package deal: wrap it all up in a bundle o' love. Snuggle up with a kid and a book, but focus on the kid. It will make a world of difference.
I feel bad sometime Nettie done pass me in learnin. But look like nothing she say can git in my brain and stay. She try to tell me something bout the ground not being flat. I say, Yeah, like I know it. I never tell her how flat it look to me.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker