Jathan Maricelli offers today’s guest post.

Why Being Childish is Good for Brain Development

being childish

If art is important to humanity, there is no more important artist than the potter who shapes the minds of our children.

In the art form of pottery, clay, during the formation stage is very pliable. So much so that the potter is able to bend it to his wishes with little effort.

As the minutes and hours tick by, however, the clay grows firmer and firmer. Eventually, it hardens into a fixed mold that can no longer be shaped, only shattered.  

Our brains are much the same.

The Plasticity of Childhood

At no point is the human brain more malleable than during one’s childhood.

Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington says it like this:

“Human babies are special. What makes them special is not that they were born so intelligent but that they are designed to change their minds when faced with data.” (Shenk – The Genius in all of Us)

In other words, babies come into this world with bated breath, just waiting to capitulate to what they hear, see, and experience. They are the most willing of clay, yearning to be shaped by their environment.

This being the case, parents, teachers, and authority figures are on the hot seat. The sacred opportunity of inputting data that sets the very trajectory of a human life rests squarely upon their shoulders.

The purpose of this article is to empower you with a few techniques that will help you do just that.

Therefore, if you are a “child artist” who wants to give every advantage to your magical lump of clay, try cultivating these six research-based positive environmental triggers.

(This list is not my creation, but was curated by David Shenk in his book, The Genius in All of Us.)

Six Positive Child Brain Development Triggers

1. Speaking to children early and often:

This trigger was revealed in Hart and Risley’s incontrovertible study and reinforced by the University of North Carolina’s Abecedarian Project, which provided environmental enrichment to children from birth, with the study subject showing substantial gains compared with a control group.

2. Reading Early and Often:

In 2003, a national study reported the positive influence of early parent-to-child reading, regardless of parental education level. In 2006, a similar study again found the same thing about reading, this time ruling out any effects of race, ethnicity, class, gender, birth order, early education, maternal education, maternal verbal ability, and maternal warmth.

3. Nurturance and Encouragement:

Hart and Risley also found that, in the first four years after birth, the average child from:

  • a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback
  • a working-class child receives merely 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements
  • a welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements

4. Setting High Expectations:

As Sherman and Key found in 1932, “children develop only as the environment demands development.”

5. Embracing Failure:

Coaches, CEO’s, teachers, parents, and psychologists all now recognize the importance of pushing their charges to the limit, and just beyond. Setbacks must be seen as learning tools rather than signs of permanent built-in limitation.

6. Encouraging a “growth mindset.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has built her prestigious career on the importance of individuals believing that their own abilities are malleable – not fixed from birth. Many studies show that the more a person believes that abilities can be developed, the greater the success that person will eventually enjoy.


As a classroom teacher who sees both the positive and negative after effects of child brain development every day, I cannot overstate the importance of cultivating proper environments for your children as early on as possible.

While it’s true that the growth of a child is a group effort of schools, churches, communities, and so on, there is no greater influence in a child’s life than that which they receive at home.

With that said, don’t let this list put you on yet another guilt trip for what you didn’t do while your child was at home. Neither let it suggest to you that you are somehow ruining your child if you don’t constantly ping in all of these areas.

Remember, you are neither God nor a passive bystander in who your child ultimately becomes.  

Shenk articulates well how you should think about your role in shaping your child’s cognitive processes:

“The potential for creativity is built into the architecture of our brains. All of these are a function of influence and process – far from fully controllable, but also quite the opposite of fixed and predetermined.

The parent’s job, then, is to engage in that process – which has, of course, already started long before birth”.

With these principles in mind, throw your artistic expression into that little lump of clay with the type of urgency that suggests it is hardening by the second. 

Because it is.  

Read on for more about brains…

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Jathan is a writer and English teacher. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and four children. More of his writing can be found at www.jathanmaricelli.com




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