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Applying Brain Research to Create Developmentally Appropriate Learning Environments

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"This article is posted with permission from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) It originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of /Young Children, /the journal of NAEYC. Copyright © 2001 NAEYC. If you wish to copy or distribute this material, contact the permissions contact listed


The validity of many developmentally appropriate practices is confirmed in the findings of brain research.

The results of exciting research in the field of neuro-science may help teachers understand how the growing mind works and how the environment can facilitate learning (Sylwester 1995); Diamond & Hopson 1998). There is increasing evidence of the importance of classrooms that both support young children’s development and stimulate their interest. In the vein Rushton and Larking (2001) draw upon the findings of brain research from the last decade to amplify the recommendations of the NAEYC (Bredekamp & Copple 1997) and some tenets from constructivist educators (Caine & Caine 1997; Jensen 1998). A nonthreatening learning environment is crucial if students are to feel safe in encountering and exploring stimulating new ideas.

Thanks to the research of neuroscientists (Fitzpatrick 1995; Sylwester 1995; Diamond & Hopson 1998) cognitive psychologists (Gardner 1993; LeDoux 1996), and educators (Caine & Caine 1997; Jensen 1998), classroom teachers have important information at their disposal to help them create what Jensen calls high-activity, low-stress, brain-compatible learning environments. Many teachers with good early childhood raining already apply the results of brain research by engaging children in meaningful learning experiences, encouraging cooperative learning, and supporting active learning. In fact, the validity of many developmentally appropriate practices is confirmed in the findings of brain research. Rather than offer revolutionary approaches to teaching, these findings suggest why some teaching styles and strategies may be more effective than others.

This article examines the early childhood and primary learning environments and developmentally appropriate practices in light of the findings of brain research in the mid to late 1990’s.

How the Brain Works

As children interact with their learning environment, whether it be an open-ended learning center in the classroom or a waste-treatment center on a field trip, they assimilate large amounts of information through their senses. These sensory stimuli enter the nervous system and are relayed to the brain via the chemical and electrical firing of nerve cells’ dendrites. The information is transmitted to the thalamus, a portion of the brain that acts as a sorting station to reroute the sensory input to more specialized parts of the brain for processing. The occipital lobe, located near the rear of the brain, receives and processes visual information. The temporal lobe, located in the mid-left portion of the brain, processes language, writing, hearing and to some extent memory. The parietal lobe also processes language, along with short-term memory. Finally, the frontal lobe enables us to judge, be creative, and generally make decisions and long-term plans. All information is sent to the amygdala in the lower brain, which sorts it for emotional significance. The amygdala checks especially whether information is threatening; threats can reduce a child’s ability to learn and function (Wolfe & Brandt 1998).

There are billions of nerve cells in the brain. When a child is engaged in a learning experience, a number of areas of the brain are simultaneously activated. Positron emission topography (known as a PET scan) can show the different regions of the brain that are simultaneously activated when a person reads. For instance, when a child who is learning to read picks up a book, several regions of the brain start working together. As the child picks up the book, her brain’s motor cortex becomes active. As she begins to look at and sound out the words, the neurons in the occipital lobe begin to fire. When the child deciphers the letters, the temporal lobe (language activation) is activated, along with the frontal lobe (reasoning skills) (Wolfe & Brandt 1998).

Teachers should aim to create a balance between meaningful experiences and optimal stimulation of the brain in their classrooms. For example, when students are engaged in cooperative learning, they are often required to work in groups of four in which they interact with each other and are expected to create a product or result as a group. This format creates both a positive level of stress and often meaningful experiences for the children.

Research findings on how the brain functions show that high levels of stress can inhibit learning (Jensen 1998). When a child experiences stress, the amygdala stimulates the release of cortisol and other neurotransmitters, which can disrupt the learning process by inhibiting the child’s reasoning abilities. Perceived fear drives us to survive, often by blocking our normal thinking abilities. When a child is belittled, or yelled at, the releasing of cortisol stops the child from thinking in a clear manner. Endorphins, such as norepinephrine, which are released when a child feels safe and secure, can help a child to relax. In addition, these hormones stimulate learning and memory and thus help focus the child’s attention during the learning process.

If the amygdala perceives a threat, the body’s autonomic nervous system is activated to deal with it. One byproduct of this arousal is heightened awareness mixed with fear. When these physiological reactions take place higher-order thinking skills involved with reasoning (frontal lobes) and language (temporal lobes) can be disrupted. Many children who experience fear in the classroom freeze up and are unable to communicate effectively. The teacher may make the situation worse by demanding that children respond to questions to which they do not know the answers. Teachers can work toward creating supportive learning environments that optimize the brain’s biochemistry.

Optimal learning environment

What elements comprise a developmentally appropriate learning environment compatible with the brain’s biochemistry? Such an environment provides high-involvement, low-stress activities like field trips and cooperative learning. It offers children experiences with real-life, hands-on, theme-based activities oriented to solving problems, such as children counting out play money when shopping at the store in the dramatic play center. Additionally, the environment calls into use many of children’s senses and various intelligences (Gardner 1993) while they learn through social dialogue during circle time, active listening when interacting with classroom visitors, physical movement when acting out the stories that have written, as well as reading and writing. Children engage in activities that allow them-individually, in pairs, or in small cooperative groups – to make important decisions and choices about what and how they learn. It is easy to imagine the brain’s synaptic networks making connections as students touch, think, discuss, eat, and interact with each other in an enriched learning environment where children have opportunities to be physically, socially, and intellectually immersed in learning.

Learning centers in the classroom

A developmentally appropriate classroom enables the connecting of learning to positive emotions, allowing students to make better, more reflective decisions and choices. Emotions are biological functions of the nervous system, and they strongly influence attention and memory. Children engaged in interesting activities at the beginning of the day will have a more positive disposition toward the day’s activities as a whole. Additionally, they will retain more information when learning is associated with positive emotions. However, emotions can be a double-edged sword. A balance of emotions is needed for learning to take place. Jensen states that “ a little to a moderate amount of stress is good for learning. Lasting high stress or threat, however, is disruptive. It reduces our brain’s capacity for understanding and can interfere with our higher-order thinking skills” (1998, 93).

Because individual differences occur among children, not all classroom situations are going to elicit the same response from children. Extroverted children may enjoy opportunities for more varied activities. “Effective Teacher Strategies That Optimize Learning” presents techniques that influence the brain to be attentive, to absorb new information, and to store this information in long-term memory. “Situations That Can Hinder Learning,” describes conditions and events that can cause a child to be less reflective, more reactive. A great deal of the child’s perception of whether a situation is threatening depends upon the teacher’s attitude. A potentially upsetting moment can be defused by a caring word, a gentle touch, or a smile.

Learning centers provide children with the autonomy to explore their interests with positive emotions. Some students release emotional tension by playing at the sand table, petting an animal, or working with their hands-on projects. Others may begin the day by reading in a cozy beanbag chair up in the reading loft. Still others enjoy listening to music and eating a snack. Several centers located around the room allow children to participate as individuals or as members of small groups. Centers may focus on carpentry, cut-and-paste activities, science, publishing, pets, chess, reading and writing, and sand and water play.

A learning environment with a variety of centers fosters self-esteem and decision making ability by creating opportunities for the learner to make their own decisions and choices. Taking personal responsibility for their learning helps children learn to focus their attention. As a primary school teacher, I provided each child with a tracking sheet to help him monitor the number of times he visited the various learning centers during the week. Tracking sheets also allow the teacher to individualize the curriculum to children’s specific needs, I encouraged the children to be responsible for their actions and learning during the day-to hold conversations and discussions as they interacted, played, and learned together.

Effective Teacher Strategies That Optimize Learning

  • Creating a positive and engaging classroom
  • Building trust in a nonthreatening atmosphere
  • Using creative strategies to reach all children’s learning styles
  • Using humor, without sarcasm
  • Providing appropriate choices
  • Using individualized planning
  • Being well organized so that students can predict what is coming
  • Behaving honestly and consistently
  • Providing opportunities for student to feel empowered
  • Modeling positive behaviors
  • Providing opportunities for students to have ownership with their learning
  • Using games
  • Using rich literature and poetry
  • Using plants, music, and lamps to create warm comfortable settings
  • Teaching students about the brain and how it works
  • Letting children know it’s OK to make a mistake
  • Using role-playing, simulations, storytelling
  • Teaching and modeling conflict resolution

Situations That Can Hinder Learning

  • Being put on the spot, not knowing the answer to a direct question, and not having the opportunity to be reflective
  • Having a teacher who yells at children, causes embarrassment, uses sarcasm, accuses students of wrongdoing.
  • Lacking prior knowledge or being unable to connect the content to prior knowledge
  • Having negative experiences with schools and teachers in the past
  • Learning in a cold, unpleasant environment
  • Fearing failure or the consequences of not doing well
  • Experiencing poor social relationships with peers, such as being bullied
  • Being tested or making oral presentations
  • Losing control
  • Engaging in power struggles
  • Reading aloud
  • Being bullied on the playground
  • Experiencing peer pressure
  • Having to wait to answer a question
  • Being unable to meet unrealistic expectations
  • Having a core belief threatened


Meaningful learning experiences

The classroom environment determines, to some degree, the functioning ability of children’s brains.

Because knowledge is constructed from meaningful experience, children benefit from being immersed in real-life, hands-on learning experiences that are theme based and oriented toward problem solving. Recent findings (Rushton & Larkin 2001) confirm that children learn best when provided with choices, when they find the learning experiences meaningful, and when they are actively involved in decision-making. Research on the brain discloses that neurons change during such experiences. As a child experiences an event for the first time, for example, new dendrites form on nerve cells. Further changes to these dendrites occur with repeated exposure to the experience. The belief is that the greater the number of dendrites and connection of dendrites to each other the greater the speed of recall and memory.

The classroom environment determines, to some degree, the functioning ability of children’s brains. Neuroscientists suggest that at birth, children do not possess a fully developed brain. As Wolfe and Brandt (1998) state, “the brain that eventually takes shape is the result of interaction between the individuals genetic inheritance and everything he or she experiences” (p.18). With this in mind it is important for early childhood and primary teachers to provide experiences that are both meaningful and relevant to the children’s lives. When introducing a new theme, the teacher should create a living experience-a real-life learning experience in which the children play an active role, otherwise the brain is not easily able to store the new information effectively.

For example, students may take a field trip to a landfill and subsequently make landfill models in their classroom and write about the impact and the future of landfills (see A Developmentally Appropriate Lesson). Themes chosen by the children should incorporate all aspects of the learning process and integrate the classroom curriculum. Math concepts such as calculating the area of a landfill, sorting and comparing different types of garbage, or estimating and measuring the quantity of garbage that will fill the landfill are easily incorporated. If the learning that takes place in a stimulating and theme-based learning environment is meaningful and relevant to the children’s lives, it stimulates their desire to learn.

Brain research explains why the teachings of child-centered constructivist educators like Dewey, Piaget, and Bygotsky are relevant.

A Developmentally Appropriate Lesson

Through the use of a simple analogy, some role-playing, and simulation, these students experienced for themselves how serious a problem pollution can be.

Upon entering the classroom one Monday morning the children noticed some 28 brightly colored, laminated, cut-out fish shapes scattered around the floor-each labeled with its name. The teacher asked the students to take out everything from under their desks and place their belongings on storage shelves for the next several weeks. Each group of four desks (arranged in cooperative learning format) represented a continent, the floor the oceans, and the insides of the desks, where the children normally put their books, became the class landfills.

For a month the children did not place any paper in the wastebaskets. Only such things as banana peels, apple cores, and milk cartons went in the trash. The custodian did not vacuum the floor for several weeks!

Each day the students had to figure out ways to conserve space in their landfills. In their groups they problem solved about what to do with waste paper. They tried crushing, tearing, and compacting garbage to maximize their continents’ landfills. Once third-grader, feeling desperate as his group’s continent began to overflow with waste, brought matches to school and asked the teacher if his group could burn the paper.

During those four weeks, the class visited a landfill facility, a recycling plant, and a clean-and waste-water treatment plant. They researched the pros and cons of waste solutions, created plays, raps, and poems and wrote letters to members of Congress. Eventually the landfills became full, and paper began to pour out onto the floor. The teacher began removing some of the fish from the oceans. The calls created a graph and graphed each fish, associating it with a continent. The children caught on to the fact that pollution has a serious impact on the environment.

This experience gave the children a firsthand look at the impact people have on the Earth.


What would John Dewey think, if he were alive today, of the numerous reports, articles, books, and scientific research relating to this hot topic, brain research? Many of the terms employed in discussing the development and learning of young children-brain-compatible learning environments, positron emission topography, dendrites, neurotransmitters, chemical and electrical synaptic impulses-did not exist in his time. Dewey believed that children learn best when interacting in a rich environment, that children construct meaning from real-life application of knowledge, and that when various senses are used simultaneously, the probability of learning is greater. Educational terminology today, such as integrated curriculum, theme-based learning, active hands-on learning, and authentic teaching, not only echoes brain research findings but also reflects many of Dewey’s philosophical beliefs, thoughts, and tenets.

Research has revealed a great deal about the functioning of the brain during what has been called the decade of the brain. Perhaps now as we move further along in the information age, the first decade of the new millennium will become the decade of education as suggested by Wolfe and Brandt (1998). Brain research is filling in gaps in our understanding of how children learn best, and it explains further why the teachings of child-centered constructivist educators like Dewere, Piaget, and Vygotsky are relevant. Hopefully, the use of developmentally appropriate practices for future generations will increase with additional understanding of how the brain works.



Bredekamp, S., & C. Copple, eds. 1997. Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Rev. Ed. Washington. DC: NAEYC

Caine, R.N., & G Caine. 1997. Unleashing the power of perceptual change. Alexandria, VA; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Diamond, M., & J. Hopson. 1998. Magic trees of the mind: How to nurture your child’s intelligence, creativity, and healthy emotions from birth through adolescence. New York: Penguin Putman.

Fitzpatrick. S. 1995. Smart brains: Neuroscientists explain the mystery of what makes us human. American School Board Journal.

Gardner, H. 1993. Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic.

Jensen. E. 1998. Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

LeDoux, J. 1996. The emotional brain. The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rushton, S., & L. Larkin. 2001. Shaping the learning environment: Connecting brain research to developmentally appropriate practices. Early Childhood Education Journal 29 (1):25-33.

Sylwester.R. 1995. A celebration of neurons: An educator’s guide to the human brain. Alexanderia, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wolfe, J., & R. Brandt. 1998. What we know from brain research. Educational Leadership 56 (3): 8-14.


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