The Brain, Learning and the Early Years

The Brain, Learning and the Early Years

Our Boogie Mites Tutor, Liv McLennan recently attended neuroscience lectures hosted by Nursery World. In this article, Liv summarises “The Brain, Learning and the Early Years” that was delivered by Paul Howard-Jones, and discusses the links to Boogie Mites’ practice.

Learn how to apply the neuroscience in your setting with our Practitioner Guide To Active Music Making:

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The first presentation was from Paul Howard-Jones, who is a professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University, but probably most well-known for his role on The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds.

Paul’s presentation primarily focused on early years settings that achieved ‘school readiness’ in their children, in particular the qualities of teaching (or interactions) for children’s’ learning. However, they are principles that can be taken into musical work with children, and are definitely threaded through the work of Boogie Mites tutors.


He told us that essentially, two of the most important elements of enabling children to be ‘school ready’ are self-regulation and attention (that is, being able to focus on a task), and the three processes that assist in the development of these are: Engage – Build – Consolidate.

In terms of Engagement for Learning, we know that every brain is unique, and what makes a task attractive to a child depends on genetic, learned and developmental factors. We also know that receiving positive feedback, or gaining rewards in a different way (for example, tokens, getting to do something new or choosing the next activity), can enhance a child’s engagement for learning, and fearfulness or anxiety can reduce a child’s capacity for learning. This is because attention is averted and the brain’s capacity to process information is reduced. However, we also know that the brain is ‘plastic’ and does not define a biological limit to our learning, because learning also happens in response to our environment. Therefore, the child and any adults interacting with them over a period of time play an important role in supporting the child’s brain development.

So how does this relate to Boogie Mites? Well, it struck me that Boogie Mites is working in a way that creates a great learning environment! First and foremost, Boogie Mites music is a real hit with the children who attend our classes, whether with their parents or in a nursery. Most children are motivated to participate in Boogie Mites musical learning because the songs and activities are engaging and fun. The first tick for engagement for learning! Alongside this, our tutors provide a supportive, no-fail environment in which individual achievements are recognised and praised, means children can relax into the sessions and be at an optimal state for learning. So far so good!

The second process in children’s learning is Building Knowledge and Understanding. We know that for learning to be lasting and meaningful, it has to relate to prior knowledge. A child’s brain needs a bit more support in making connections to prior knowledge and we can make this easier for children by offering clear and concise instruction and minimising distraction to make it easier for children to process information. The third way to help children build knowledge is to model it ourselves and also encourage them to observe peers who have already learned how to do something. We communicate both consciously and unconsciously, and our Mirror Neuron System helps us to read each others’ minds. Or in other words, we can learn by observing and copying others, but also understand the actions and intentions of others.

Again, Boogie Mites tutors use these approaches in our music sessions, and the consequence is that we do see children learn new skills in a very short space of time. We always build on skills and knowledge that have gone before by developing and extending the musical activities. We also use clear and concise communication (and often though gesture and music rather than long spoken sentences) to present the information, and of course, we are always modelling the musical learning activity for the children taking part. A great example would be when we use our ever-popular drumming song, Bangedy Bang Bang. There is a sequence of taps in the middle of the song numbering from 1-4. For very young children, we practise starting and stopping drum rolls over the numbers, always modelled by the tutor. To progress, we encourage counting and tapping simultaneously, and then eventually, we add words with those number of syllables to the tapping. We build in all sorts of related activities to present the information in other ways, keeping it new, fresh and relevant to the child’s developmental progress, which also feeds into the ‘Engagement for Learning’ stage. Indeed, Howard-Jones suggested that the Engage-Build-Consolidate processes can follow in rapid succession, if not simultaneously.

The third process in children’s learning is the Consolidation of Learning. The main necessities for consolidation of knowledge involve rehearsing the newly learned knowledge, applying it in different situations and, finally getting enough sleep to make learning more permanent. Yes, Boogie Mites tries to support consolidation of knowledge in our regular sessions, but this is where our work with practitioners and parents really supports this particular process of learning. Whether that is through developing a ‘music kit’ in parent music and craft sessions that children can use at home, or training practitioners both in delivering Boogie Mites programmes and supporting children’s individual musical expression in free play, we provide the tools for children to practise music in between Boogie Mites sessions. Indeed, we also support parents and practitioners to enable children to practise musical activities in different ways. For example, using shakers to shake along to music, or imagining them as other objects (such as the waves in the sea), or comparing the sounds of different shakers, all help children to store knowledge in different ways.

Sadly we can’t do much about children’s sleep, but we can help them to expend lots of energy through active music-making sessions in the day, which might help with their overall sleep. Well, here’s hoping anyway!


Paul Howard-Jones was a fantastic speaker and gave much more information than what is discussed here. If you are interested in finding out more, his newest book is called Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or how you got to be so smart…, and is published by Routledge. It’s definitely on my Christmas list!

You can find out more about the science that proves that music boosts early years development in our Practitioner’s Guide to Active Music Making:

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You can also find out more in the Neuroscience section of our About Us page.