- Enriched environments are varied, novel, free and promote activity
- Studies have shown enriched environments build bigger and better brains
- The enriched environment itself does a lot of the teaching
- Parents, caregivers and teachers can foster children’s long term well being by providing enriched environments
Research on enriched environments for the young have demonstrated an array of positive brain changes that have a lasting impact on their life. Enriched environments encourage free play, exploration, creativity and stimulate a range of sensory, cognitive and emotional experiences.
In 1947, the first paper was published on the benefits of enriched environments at a young age on long term brain development by a researcher named Donald Hebb. This research was done on rats, but it has since been extended and replicated on other mammals including primates and dogs. Although for obvious ethical reasons, these studies can’t be replicated on humans, we can however, very reasonably apply what we have learnt from these studies to humans because of the similarities in brain anatomy and developmental processes between these mammals and humans. There have also been a number of behavioural studies on humans that support the findings of the benefits of enriched environments.
Brain development and enriched environments
What these studies have shown are quite amazing. Mammals that are exposed to these enriched environments at a young age compared to those who are not, quite literally end up with bigger and better brains.
Enriched environments result in:
• Increased neurogenesis (increased brain cell creation)
• Greater survival of neurons (or decreased brain cell death)
• Increased dendritic branching (more branches coming off nerve cells)
• Increased synaptogensis (more connections being made in the brain)
• Lowered levels of stress hormones
• Increased “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine
It is research such as this that has lead to governments world wide prioritizing and investing resources into ensuring young kids have enriched experiences. Hopefully, it should be very clear for parents, caretakers and teachers how much their kids can benefit from enriched environments. But what exactly is an enriched environment?
What are enriched environments?
The first thing that parents and caretakers should understand about enriched environments is that there are both physical and emotional characteristics. Below is a list of characteristics:
• Environment is interesting and varied
• Provides opportunities for experimental interactions with the environment
• Novel objects and places to stimulate interest
• Opportunities for physical activity
• Space to explore
• A range of potential activities to be mastered
• Environment stimulates the senses in different ways
• Opportunity to engage and interact with multiple adults and peers
• Atmosphere of joy and freedom without pressures
• Kids feel safe to explore and express themselves
• Encouragement and positive emotional support
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Enriched environments and play
Adults can sometimes have a misconception about how kids learn and develop skills believing that kids need to be taught everything. This has somewhat led to possibly an overemphasis on structured activities for young kids. Structured activities that are led by adults are great and teach all types of skills that they may otherwise not learn. On skillforkids.com you can find hundreds of activities like this. But of equal importance is the free play kids have in enriched environments. In this case, kids learn just by interacting in the environment. This makes sense when we consider that kids have an inbuilt seeking system that has evolved over thousands of years. The seeking system is responsible for kids' natural urge to explore and investigate.
Enriched environments are so important for child development because kids will naturally interact and learn when given an environment that is stimulating and exhibits the characteristics listed above. The take home message for parents, caretakers and teachers is that one of their primary roles is to provide the environment, step back and let kids explore and learn by themselves.