Understanding Brain Development in Children

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Adaptable Brains

Sometimes, a little understanding of children’s brains can help us see in a new light. Brain science has thrived over the last ten to fifteen years, with new, exciting discoveries changing our views all the time.

For example, neuroscientists have only recently discovered how flexible and adaptable our brains are. This is called “plasticity”. Brains can adapt and change constantly, to cope with particular situations in the environment. One classic example is London black taxi drivers. They train for a very long time and they are required to learn thousands of routes and street names. Studies have shown that taxi drivers have a much larger hippocampus than most people. This is a part of the brain which is important in learning and memory.

Environments shape brains. The good news is that if one area of our brain is not strong, we can often strengthen it through practice.

Understanding brain development in children can help us to be effective, responsive parents.

Early Years

The early years of a child’s life (the first three in particular) are the most crucial. This is because of plasticity, mentioned above. Everything a child sees, hears, tastes, smells and touches will shape the brain’s development. This makes some areas stronger and more developed than others. The brain is rapidly growing and being shaped, with new neuronal networks forming and strengthening all the time. Whilst it is important not to overstimulate a child (because children need plenty of rest and recovery time too), exposing her to lots of different experiences will give her brain a great start.

The Importance of Movement

Another thing we know about brains, particularly in children, is that they do not work at their best when sitting still for long periods of time. As cavemen, we would have spent long periods on the move as hunter-gatherers. Movement actually helps us to learn. It directly encourages the growth of a substance called BDNF, which causes new cell growth. Our brains have not changed much since we were “cavemen”. Many of the old caveman parts are still in place, and our brains have not had a chance to adapt to modern living. Sitting still for long periods of time, as many schools require, then, is not the best condition for learning. Our current education system was not designed based on understanding brain development in children.

Brain Health and Food

The brain and connected nervous system need a balanced diet in order to function at their best.

Fat makes up around 60% of the brain. Omega 3 essential fatty acids are the most important type of fat. Fats build brain and nerve cells and coat the networks between brain cells (the myelin sheath). Omega 3s can be found in chia seeds, walnuts, kidney beans and seaweed or algae (including algae oil capsules).

Antioxidants in berries, particularly blueberries, improve communication between brain cells. Studies have shown they can improve memory.

brain development and food
Image by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay

Magnesium is also essential for learning and memory. It is important for many functions in the body, but it is most crucial for maintaining a healthy nervous system. You can find it in dark chocolate, avocados, nuts and lentils.

These are just a few examples of essential nutrients for your child’s brain, and we will be exploring more in this section.

Brain Health and Sleep

Sleep is also crucial for healthy brain development. Our brains process, categorize and store what has been learned during sleep. Children are learning more rapidly, and need more sleep to accommodate this. Several studies have now shown than getting less than 10 hours’ sleep before the age of 3, can contribute to language, reading and attention problems in older children. This is one example of how understanding brain development in children can help us to parent them effectively.

The natural biological rhythms of sleep (circadian rhythm) change in the teenage years. Teenagers start to shift their natural sleep time too much later in the evening but still require 8-10 hours of sleep. Therefore they face a challenge when faced with getting to school at the normal time.

A study in 2013 found that sleep helps the brain cleanse itself. Cerebrospinal fluid washes into the spaces between the neurons, gathering toxins and washing them away.

Understanding Brain Development in Children: Children’s Brains are Very Different From Adults’ Brains

A final important idea is that children are not born with an adult, “finished” brain. Some areas of the brain are much less developed than others. Young children are not as good at planning or being rational as adults. This is because an important part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is not yet finished. If a parent expects a child to be able to think through a situation rationally, weigh up the options, and then decide on the best course of action, she may be expecting too much. The prefrontal cortex has a period of rapid development from puberty onwards, allowing teenagers to get much better at planning, organising and rationalising, as they become adults. You can see how parents with a sound understanding of brain development in children might be at an advantage!

The Reward Centre of the Brain and Puberty

Different parts of the brain grow at different rates. I have explained that the prefrontal cortex starts to grow rapidly from puberty into early adulthood. However, the nucleus accumbens, a tiny area of the brain responsible for seeking rewards, develops even quicker. As a result, the brain (especially in boys) seeks buzzes faster than the thinking part of the brain can control these urges. This leads to an increase in risk-taking behaviour. Therefore it is very important to work on self-control skills with your child before he hits puberty so that he has this under his belt and can better manage this desire for more buzzes.


Brain development and risk-taking behaviour in teenagers
Image by James Vaughan from Pixabay


Naturally, we are all stronger and weaker in different areas. Brains develop at different rates and some of this is inherited. However, the environment has a huge role to play. We should nurture our children’s brains by stimulating them with lots of different experiences to encourage growth in many different areas. This might include thinking, social interaction, motor skills and play. We must feed children’s brains with healthy foods such as those rich in omega 3s, magnesium and antioxidants. We also need to ensure that children’s brains can rest and recuperate from all that learning, including plenty of sleep. This advice applies throughout childhood and the teenage years. It’s not easy, and yet again, it’s all about getting the balance right!

If you are a UK parent of an 11-17 year-old and would like to access support in all aspects of parenting and child mental health, take a look at our online membership, Everlief Parent Club, with 2 live online workshops per month.

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