Early Childhood Education: Monkey See, Monkey Learn…

I used to wonder about the value in sending a young child for enrichment classes. After all, what value can be derived if a child cannot sit still and pay attention? And yet, I started sending Hercules for right brain education classes from a tender age of 5 months.

In TweedleWink, it was more about input and less about output so it made sense. We were providing sensory input, knowledge and information, and stimulation for the right brain.

In Heguru, the parents participated in the activities while the children watched (or didn’t watch, as was sometimes the case). And I told myself that early exposure was good so that they would be familiar with these activities when they were older and would want to participate in them as soon as they were physically and mentally able to. After all, it’s “monkey see, monkey do”, right? So that was the sense of early classes.

And then I read about that research by Giacomo Rizzolatti that led to the discovery of “mirror neurons”. I cannot recall the book I read it in, but I found a reference to the study in Scientific American. In the experiment, they had a monkey wired up to a machine that could detect neurons being fired. They were studying the area of the brain called the premotor cortex. Quite by accident, they noticed that when the monkey was watching them eat, its neurons were firing as if it were performing the same eating action even though the monkey was motionless.

If simply watching someone else performing an activity can cause neuronal firing in our brains as if we were performing that activity, is it possible that children watching an activity being performed might derive almost as good as if not as good as the benefit of doing the activity themselves? So if Hercules watches me do the Mandala exercises, or linking memory, or tangram, he learns the activity as well?

When Aristotle was little – way before I had ever heard of Glenn Doman or anything about infant education – I lacked the knowledge on how to help stimulate his brain so I would sit beside him and play with his toys while he watched so he could learn how to play with them. I would do jigsaw puzzles, while he threw the pieces around. I would create Duplo constructions while he pulled the pieces off. I would build towers out of blocks while he knocked them down. I would make up stories using his Thomas trains while he listened. These were the bulk of our “developmental” activities way before I knew about teaching babies to read, right brain development, and all the rest.

Judging from what I’ve read about early childhood development, it would appear that I have not been too far off with my “uneducated” approach towards Aristotle’s early brain stimulation. Even though young children might not be physically capable, or even mentally capable of expressing what they have learned through observation, they are still taking it all in – even when they appear as if they aren’t even paying attention.

In one article, I read that this is because unlike adult brains which work like a torch shining a narrow beam of light on one spot, children’s brains are like lanterns spreading light over everything. Recently, I read the phyisiology of how it all works in “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. Michael Merzenich’s research talks about the critical period when learning is as easy as breathing. Merzenich explains that because young children cannot know what is important to learn and what is not, their brains are wired to be engaged at all times to take in everything they see and hear because they cannot differentiate between what they need to know and what they don’t. It is only after the critical period, when a foundation is already established, that their lantern of light narrows its focus. By that time, they are like adults in their need to “pay attention” in order to learn.

Since learning is so easy during the critical period, it makes sense to start teaching children to read early. It’s why it’s so much easier for young children to learn new languages (and that goes even if they missed it in their first year). Essentially, they cannot stop themselves learning because their brains are compelled to do so. They are fascinated by everything, they notice everything, and they want to know everything.

I think this also explains why when Aristotle was young, he could see Thomas everywhere, even if it was most obscurely placed or so well hidden that our adult eyes are unable to find it. You could not take him past any place where Thomas was visible in some tiny corner without him noticing it. However, now that he is older, he seems to “miss” more things. It is easier to slip things past him because he is starting to tune out “unnecessary” stimuli. Hercules, on the other hand, is going through the same phase Aristotle once went through – he sees Mickey and Angry Birds everywhere.

When I read about the critical period that Merzenich describes, I am reminded of Maria Montessori’s Absorbent Mind, and Doman’s and Shichida’s first six years. If a child can see it and hear it, he can learn it, even if he can’t do it, or tell you that he knows it. And since everything that we say, do and show our children in this critical period is being absorbed by that little sponge in their heads, why not make it as meaningful as possible?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Early Childhood Education: Monkey See, Monkey Learn…

  1. Hi Shenli,

    Do you know when is the critical period as told by Michael Merzenich’s research, did he talk about any specific cut off age ? Or did he also talk about the same cut off period of the first 6 years ?


    1. Fz – Unfortunately, I could not find reference to Merzenich’s cut off for the critical period. I just assumed it was the same as the first 6 years that Doman, Shichida and Montessori referred to.


  2. There was an article in the Star yesterday about Dr Adele Diamond who specialises in prefrontal cortex and executive functions (“EF”) of kids. She said that all activities that we send our kids to, piano, martial arts, ballet, and the like actually build up EF, if done right. Overscheduling and focing them to attend will backfire. So do continue to send your children to enrichment class as long as they enjoy it!


    1. Irene – yes. Absolutely. A long time back I wrote an article that talked about the importance of “down time” – time where children have the opportunity to feel bored because it is an important part of allowing their brains to consolidate what they have learned. Too much activity is as bad as no activity.


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