Celebrating the Cerebellum: The Tiny but Mighty Structure that Shapes Early Childhood Development

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Celebrating the Cerebellum:

The Brain Star of Early Childhood Development

A Little Historical Context for my Research

(If you just want the brain goodies,

then jump down to the next section!)

Here is my career trajectory in a nutshell (if only to provide some context for my current passion for neural development): While my very first ‘career’ was as a pharmacy technician, my work in social care began in early childhood education. After I had my own children, I decided to go back to school and earn a degree in child and youth care to expand my reach beyond childhood, to include work with youth and families. I worked for an Indigenous community in Enderby for 10 years, providing child protection, family reunification and counselling services. During this time I got a masters in social work, and then went on to teach early childhood education, social work and women’s studies for another 10 years while doing yet more graduate work in critical theory, midwifery and diverse families while also maintaining a clinical practice with children. Along the way I did a yoga teacher training, and shortly thereafter did another yoga teacher training that focused on children and youth.

One reason I find my career path so interesting is that I am happily back to where I started, focusing on early childhood education. Just like the hero’s journey, I have travelled out and back, changed by my experiences along the way. After all the higher education and years of both teaching and learning with adults, I return and remain passionate about working with ‘littles’, especially the 3 to 5 age range.

Fast forward to now, and my current studies in the field of dance and movement therapy, I find myself applying all that I learn into specializing in early childhood through the lenses of developmental psychology, embryology and neuroscience. While I am not an expert in any of these specific fields, they all contribute to the expertise I am gaining as a movement therapist. Currently, I am specifically researching how early reflexes shape early childhood development, especially neuro-motor development, and how this development informs behaviour. This leads me to…

Celebrate the Brain Star that is the Cerebellum!

(this is the brain goodies section)

While the above may cause you to think I must be super smart, please know that I am actually super humbled by my work with children. I find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, but the more curious I become. Children have always been my most profound teachers, especially my own children. Now I realize know I don’t know much at all, as my wise and sassy granddaughter reminds me frequently!

This brings us to the structure at hand, the Tiny but Mighty Cerebellum. I’ve been referring to this ‘tiny brain’ as the Brain Star of Early Childhood Development, so I wanted to share why with you, in hopes that you too will become passionate about supporting the growth of your child’s cerebellum in the most optimal, efficient, functional and resourceful ways.

Let’s begin with some Super Interesting Facts about the Whole Brain (which will make the cerebellum facts even MORE interesting!)

  • The average adult brain weighs about 3 pounds

  • As only 2% of the body’s total weight, the 3 pound brain draws 20% of the body’s resources (oxygen, glucose, energy)

  • The brain is 73% water and it only takes 2% dehydration to affect attention, memory and other cognitive skills (are you convinced to drink more water yet?)

Now, for some Super Interesting Facts about the Cerebellum:

  • The cerebellum is situated at the back of the brain, and sits atop the brain stem, just below the cerebral cortex (see arrow in above image)

  • The cerebellum is only a small portion of the overall brain size, but accounts for 11% of the brain’s weight because it is so densely packed

  • From birth to 4 years of age, the cerebellum grows at a faster rate than the cortex

  • The cerebellum reaches 80% of its full size by 2 years of age

  • The cerebellum completes a major period of mylenation by four years of age (Mylenation describes the ‘fatty sheaths’ that wrap around neurons to make transmissions smooth and super fast, and also points to the importance of including health fats in young children’s diets)

  • The cerebellum is best well known for the coordination of voluntary movement, balance and muscle tone, though current research is demonstrating that this ‘tiny brain’ area of the larger brain is crucially important in early childhood development

The cerebellum learns by DOING. Young children learn primarily through movement that is mediated through the cerebellum. As early motor patterns (movement) are learned and practiced, they are filed away in the cerebellum to be accessed when required. Children’s movements are literally building the motor or movement equivalent of building a language vocabulary. The cerebellum is particularly involved in the learning stages of a new skill or movement (Goddard, p. 46).

The cerebellum has many layers, each with their own purpose. I’ll highlight a few of the functions that inform my developmental movement work with children. I’m incorporating this knowledge into my yoga and movement programs.

  • Posture

  • Progressive movement, including walking, running, climbing

  • Fine muscle coordination, particularly of the hands and mouth

  • Word association

  • Mental imagery of movement sequence (think intention or planning)

  • Practice related learning (eg. dance lessons, gymnastics, yoga)

  • Error detection (the minute I read about this, I thought about the wisdom of Sesame Street’s iconic song “One of these things is not like the other, three of these things are kinda the same”… Sesame Street is helping to strengthen the cerebellum in children! Who knew!)

  • Judging time intervals and velocity of moving stimuli (eg. catching a ball)

  • Rapidly shifting attention between sensory modalities

  • (Goddard, p. 47)

A strong cerebellum supports the other areas of the brain, as the connections between the ‘main brain’ and the ‘tiny brain’ are the most dense of all brain connections.

This excites and challenges me to focus more attention on supporting children during this crucial time of brain development. I’m currently practicing skills and games with children to observe their engagement, reactions and behaviour. So far, so good. I am working very closely with Ms. Christine, Ms. Rhonda, and the staff to ensure that your children are given the very best movement program we can create.

I’m very curious about what you think? Did you learn some things about the brain you didn’t know before? Do you have any concerns or questions you’d like to ask me or the staff?

It is an absolute pleasure and privilege to be working with your children. I thank you for your kind attention and valuable time.

May you be healthy, happy and live with deep peace,

Ms. Joani

Reference:

Goddard, S. (2005). Reflexes, learning and behavour: A window into the child’s mind. Eugene,

OR; Fern Ridge Press.