Pre-term infants, those with developmental delay and who are at risk for cerebral palsy and autism thrive in an environment that provides many opportunities for learning through experience. Parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles have many opportunities for providing a rich social and physical environment that promotes learning.
Building brain-body-environment connections
Infants learn through experience and the best way to promote your infant's social and communication skills, as well as the ability to pay attention, move, reach the major milestones, and learn to use the hands to do things is to create an environment that provides just the right type and amount of opportunities for exploration, practice and learning new skills.
The importance of being active and exploring possibilities for action
Typically developing infants are very active
Most typically developing infants are naturally curious and active and use every available opportunity to explore and work at developing new social, communication and motor skills.
They are persistent and work hard to achieve their goals, making repeated attempts in the face of failure and distractions. They are able to focus their attention on a task and are able to regulate their level of arousal, whether it be positive arousal (excitement) or negative arousal (distress or fearfulness) to suite the task.
Most typically developing infants also learn from a young age to use their ability to focus and shift their attention to moderate their alertness and emotional responses to new and unfamiliar situations. By 12 months competent infants have a well developed ability to select, sustain and shift their visual attention in a way that enhances learning of communication, language and social skills.
The ability to share attention with a social partner is also vital for learning of fine motor abilities, communication and language and social skills.
Read more: Why pay attention to infant attention?
Less active infants loose out on experience based learning
Some infants, and especially premature infants, those who are slow to reach the major motor milestones, have a very cautious, highly sensitive nature and have hypermobility or low muscle tone are often less active and less motivated to explore and may need extra help to get moving.
Infants with a highly sensitive or very cautious nature may be less willing to take on new challenges. Infants with hypermobility/low muscle tone are often less active and may need some help in developing the strength they need to get up onto their knees for crawling and pull up to standing and start walking.
Providing a rich and supportive environment is particularly important for infants with atypical brain development and those with specific neurodevelopmental conditions such as William's, Retts and Angelman's syndrome.
How experience builds brain-body-environment links
Infants are born with a basic set of abilities that allow them to start interacting with their social and physical environments from birth. They are able to coordinate sucking and breathing for feeding, they have the ability to visually connect with their parents and even have the ability to mimic mouth movements, and move the arms and legs.
Fom the first weeks infants in an alert state start to actively pay attention to the environment and us their rudimentary movement abilities to gather information (turning their heads to look at bright and moving objects or to locate sound), reaching their hands towards interesting objects within reach and exploring the contact between their legs and the cot sheet as they kick their legs.
Each time the infant moves with purpose the brain adapts the available motor plan and links the plan to the sensory consequences and changes in the environment.
Plan > a movement + sensory feedback from the body + information from the environment > goal achieved
With practice and repetition the motor plans become more refined and goals are achieved with greater precision and success. Exploration and a variety of experience allows the child to develop and refine many action plans which in turn serve as the basis for new and different actions.
Experience > new action plans > enhances exploration and success > motivation to tackle new challenges
Infants learn to predict what happens next
One of the most important aspects of early active learning and exploration is that the infant brain uses the experience to predict what happens next.
In any given situation, different areas of the brain use information from previous similar experiences (called priors) to predict which sensory information is important for the action, and use this knowledge to filter and screen what gets noticed and what gets ignores. In this way the brain filters and selects from the barrage of sensory input only that which is important.
The ability to filter and predict means that the child is not overwhelmed by sensory input or constantly faced new, unfamiliar situations that need to be evaluated from scratch.
The ability to predict what happens next also helps the infant to anticipate, get ready and plan their responses.
How the family environment promotes learning from experience
A little thoughtful planning and know-how allows families to provide their infants with a rich and varied social and physical environment that develops not only motor skills but also social skills and early communication as well as the beginnings of emotional self-regulation and the ability to take on challenges, persist and control their attention.
The ability to take on challenges, persist and keep trying, as well as the ability to regulate emotional responses and attentional focus are key to all learning. These are skills that start to develop in the first year and are promoted when parents and caregivers spend time with their infants in social interaction, playing games and supporting the infants exploration of different activities.
An enriched environment includes making optimal use of everyday and routine activities, as well as providing additional opportunities for social encounters and social games, and a varied varied physical environment that is adapted to provide just-right challenges that encourages exploration, persistence and success.