With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we’ve been thinking about the importance of love: not just romantic love, but how the emotion affects friendship, family, and even the development of our children. Research shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops by age five. With this in mind, how does the concept of love impact their development? At what age do children grasp the concept of love? How can we best teach our children about love so we can support their development?
We did our best to explore these questions, and created some fun tips to try in addition to exchanging those adorable paper valentines!
The First Sentence We Hear
We begin to hear the words “I love you” from the moment we’re born, and even in utero. While newborns don’t understand language, they quickly recognize the affectionate actions associated with the people who care for them—may it be parents or adults in a child care setting. “Experiences between birth and age five matter significantly to children’s long-term social and emotional development. Whether it’s your body language towards them or observed behavior between you and your spouse, your child is making defining connections,” says Elsa Leal, Family Engagement Supervisor at Child360. “At a significantly young age, what you model can be the biggest meaning-maker you provide to your child.”
Duke University’s Hannah Bondurant surveyed a group of children from preschool through kindergarten (ages 3-5), along with consolidating data from numerous other studies. Her findings validated what we know to be true—these are indeed formative years, and we can observe the developmental connections children make about love between these ages. At age three, subjects tend to respond to the question “What is love?” with answers such as “balloons” or “puppies.” At this stage, children center their concepts around objects or events. As the brain begins to make more connections based on children’s’ experiences, their concepts pivot to being based on memories and attitudes. By age five, they give answers such as “doing something nice for someone” or “when my sister hugs and kisses me.”
Bondurant concludes the dramatic developmental changes during this relatively short window of time, “Help show us how important the consolidation of positive memories and correct attitudes regarding love can be. Not only should we be creating moments with our children that will reinforce their connection of love with us, but also encouraging and modeling the moral mindset towards love one ought to have.”
Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Our Top Five Tips
We worked with our Family Engagement team to explore ways of reinforcing the concept of love and teaching young children how to make a difference in the lives of those around them. Whether conducted in a classroom or home environment, these exercises and activities can be a fun, bonding experience for all involved.
1. Create a feelings book together. Use pictures of children, and label how/why they felt the way they did.
Why it matters: By helping children express their feelings, you convey the message that their feelings are important. When children are able to express their emotions, they self-regulate with ease.
2. Pick a meal to cook together as a family. Invite friends or family to share the meal and use the opportunity for the group to express something nice about everyone at the table. You can take turns speaking throughout the meal—or prepare simple art supplies to distribute so everyone can create a keepsake to express their feelings.
Why it matters: In addition to encouraging emotional expression, doing a hands-on activity together can promote math and science along with literary and social skills. It’s a fun and practical way for children to learn new concepts.
3. Arrange a classroom or family yoga or meditation session. Declare a loving intention before you begin, and then end by everyone saying something they appreciate about the people they love.
Why it matters: The physical activity promotes both fine and gross motor development along with social and emotional competence while connecting the body and mindfulness practices.
4. Talk about people you’ve met who have demonstrated loving qualities. Let children freely express what love means to them.
Why it matters: Having open-ended dialogue with your child not only supports vocabulary development but also builds trust for them to share their emotions and ideas.
5. Take time to talk about your child’s positive qualities. Always let them know how much you love them for who they are.
Why it matters: In addition to the benefits of all open-ended dialogues between adults and children (see #4 above), learning how to express love can serve as the first step in your child’s “character education,” and lead to a discussion of other traits such as patience or responsibility, and the actions associated with them.
These tips were crafted and contributed by Mariela Garcia and Ana Duarte, Family Engagement Specialists.