1 to 3 years: an increasingly agile brain

1 to 3 years: an increasingly agile brain
As communication between the different parts of the brain improves, children can begin to acquire new skills.

As communication between the different parts of the brain improves, children can begin to acquire new skills.

Significant physical progress occurs between the ages of one and three. Toddlers are now able to walk, and they develop all kinds of other physical abilities. "My son can kick a ball now," says Julie, mother of 20-month-old Émile. “He used to miss it all the time. In the past few days, he’s also started walking down the stairs while holding the railing instead of coming down on his behind."

Despite their new physical abilities, children at this age still have no notion of danger. "Émile climbs on the kitchen table, on chairs, on big toys," says Julie. "To him, everything is a ladder—you can’t let him out of your sight!"

Making themselves understood

The period between 18 and 24 months is marked by significant language skills development, in part because the neurons in the brain are changing. This allows information to travel faster through the areas of the brain related to language.

Émile’s parents have noticed that their little boy is talking more. He’s recently started to use two- or three-word sentences, such as "No, not that," "Gimme milk,” and "Daddy, where are you?" "He also tries to repeat what we say, even three-syllable words," says his mother. "And when he gets it right, he claps for himself."

In a few months, Émile should be able to make himself understood, like Raphaël, who will soon be three years old. "When he comes home from daycare, he tells us about his day: how he went to the park, how the teacher told him not to push his friends," says his mother, Gabriela. "He speaks French, but he also understands Spanish." Ever since he started speaking, Raphaël has had fewer outbursts because he can finally say what he wants.

The beginning of thought

 Between ages one and three, children continue to develop their mental capacities, which will eventually allow them to learn more complex things. The area of the brain that is responsible for reasoning, planning, problem solving, taking initiative, and controlling impulses is developing. Known as executive functions, these processes are mainly controlled by the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is highly complex and continues to develop until adulthood.

“Executive functions aren’t fully developed until adulthood, but they start to appear gradually around the age of two," says Sarah Lippé. "For example, when a child pretends to change a doll’s diaper, he has to carry out a sequence of actions. That requires using executive functions."

Young children develop their executive functions, as well as all other intellectual, social, and motor skills, by playing games. Raphaël, for example, does a lot of puzzles. These types of games improve concentration and the ability to think. He also plays children’s board games with his parents. "At first, we had to keep reminding him that everyone has to take turns,” says Gabriela. “Now, he’s getting better and better at waiting his turn."

Because their prefrontal cortex has yet to mature, children at this age have significant difficulty controlling their emotions and impulses. "Parents have an important role to play—they have to put words to what their child is experiencing," explains Lippé. "Telling them that they are angry or sad and explaining why helps children understand what’s going on inside them. They’ll have an easier time recognizing their emotions the next time. It’s also a good idea to give them strategies for controlling their emotions."


The onset of memories

Babies can remember little things by the time they are just a few months old. But it’s around the age of two that they start to consciously remember snippets of events, such as candles on a birthday cake. This is called episodic memory. It improves gradually as the areas of the brain involved in forming memories begin to develop. Around the age of three or four, children are able to hold on to memories for longer. Indeed, many adults trace their earliest childhood memories back to this age. What happened before then is almost always forgotten.


Photos: Nicolas St-Germain and Maxim Morin


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Dr. Tuong-Vi Nguyen, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University