While on holidays this summer I was browsing in a bookstore (one of my favourite time indulgences) and came across a book called, How We Decide. A curious title to a book that I have found enormously interesting. Have I mentioned that my degree is actually in psychology and that I have always been fascinated with how the brain works?
I was particularly struck by a chapter talking about how patterns are so important to our brain's development. Children love to have things repeated, and repeated some more . Their growing brains thrive on the dopamine release when the events they come to expect happen in a certain way.
Have you ever noticed how we do some activities just the same in Kindermusik each week? The hello and goodbye songs are an obvious example. But we always get to use instruments, we always sing, we always have a story during "Our Time", and many more.
Patterns make children happy. Knowing what to expect and having things happen in that way not only helps children know what to expect and feel at ease, it's also how they mark time. Physiologically speaking, the meeting of those expectations through the fulfillment of predicted events releases the feel good hormone, dopamine, which is why having a schedule for children makes them feel happy. For example, children usually dash over to the "ball bin" as soon as they come to class because the balls are fun, but also because they are almost always available at arrival time. Or another example would be how children start looking for the "stuffies" once we are done the story in Our Time, because rocking the stuffies always follows the story time. On the flip side, one very disappointed little girl started softly crying one day when at the conclusion of a class she realized that we had left out the story that day to accomodate having more time for our class party at the end. Things were not as she expected, and she missed that one element.
But the brain also enjoys a good surprise, the author, Jonah Lehrer, points out. When things don't happen as expected it causes the brain to go into an "alert" mode, drawing extra attention to what is going on. That's why we tweek activities from week to week. While one week we may sing a song while clapping our hands, the next we may sing the song while bouncing on Mom's lap, or marching around the room, or adding "train whistle" sound effects. All the added nuances add to the brain's ability to sort through information and form a network for future experiences. Patterns are solidified through repetition, but enhanced through small changes that make us pay extra attention to the new information.