Networks involved in social understanding begin to develop as early as 3 years of age, according to a recent study. Specifically, the areas of the brain required to understand what others are thinking and feeling become distinct from the areas that react to seeing others in physical pain. As children get older, they respond similarly to adults both in the answers they give to tasks as well as in the way their brain responds.
Studies like this beg the question, what should kids be learning before they go to kindergarten?
The brain is born to learn and undergoes the most change between the ages of birth and five. During this time, kids are actually going through a process of getting rid of brain cells. The cells they keep are determined by their experiences and interactions with the environment. This period of development sets the stage for the rest of their life. It creates the foundation for which all other learning will occur.
Learning isn't just about academics though. Although we tend to focus on grades, test scores, and knowledge of facts, it isn't the people with the highest scores that tend to be the most successful. Those who are the most successful are the people who can convince others to believe in their ideas, can inspire others to do something, or can understand other people well enough to promote social change.
And our brains are wired for this social learning. Understanding others is one of the skills we're innately born to learn. As a matter of fact, social understanding is the way we learn. From a baby's first smile, he or she is learning to engage the world. One smile from a child leads to one from an adult, and now that child can make someone do something. The rest of toddlerhood, and perhaps all childhood, is based on trying to gain control and make others do something. If you have a 3-year-old, this makes complete sense. Every time that child refuses to do what you want or asks you to color with him while giving you puppy dog eyes, he's practicing social understanding.
So what should kids learn before kindergarten? They should learn how to learn. They should gain as much exposure to interpreting the world as possible, learn to mimic others, and learn to interact well with others. They should feel things. They should play and create. They should learn to love and understand others. Their brains are designed for this learning. This is the foundation that will set them up for success in the world.
Here are some tips for developing social understanding at all ages:
Expose your children to as many experiences as possible. At this age, it's all about sensory experiences and learning how to interpret the world around them. This will prepare them to socially engage. Give them different toys to touch, see, and hear. Surprise them by using toys in ways they do not expect. Lead them by encouraging them to mimic you. Clap your hands and then their hands. This sets the stage for their learning.
This is a time for social and imaginative play. Play with a purpose, but let the purpose be play. Encourage them to play with other kids. Play dress up, make up stories, and create a superhero set in your living room. Kids at these ages practice their conversation and play skills with dolls or stuffed animals. Listen to their play to figure out how they're thinking about others. Play with them to steer them in the right direction!
These ages are all about learning to cooperate and be a friend. Through playing sports or participating together in activities, kids are developing the skills to work with other people. They're learning how to respond emotionally and how to respond to the emotions of others. You can guide them by using conflicts as moments to teach your child something about managing social expectations.