The First Three Years

It is probably no surprise that the human brain is most adaptable during a child's first three years of life. It may be more surprising, however, to know that the entire course of one’s life is also largely determined during these early years. The foundations for an individual’s physical and mental health, a person’s ability to learn and grow, and their capacity to get along in society are all established in their early years.

How can the time when a human being is most helpless shape the rest of their entire lives?

Brain Development

During the first three years of life, a child's brain cycles through various "critical periods” of development where different neural connections are shaped and formed. These neural connections form the foundations for everything a person will ever do. The more robust and abundant the neural connections, the stronger and healthier the brain.

Everything from how they express themselves and respond to others, to what they do in the face of challenges, how they learn and problem solve, or how they react when confronted by fear, are all affected by the neural connections that form in these early years. Even the body's immune response is largely shaped by the connections made in these early, critical periods.

Scientists have found that the two primary factors that determine how robust and abundant the foundation of one’s neural connections are their environment and their relationships.


In the late 1990’s scientists discovered that a person's environment actually affected the neural connections in his or her brain. Environments rich in opportunities for learning created a backdrop for healthy brain development with robust and abundant neural connections. “Rich Environments” are full of colors, words, sounds, textures, problems, and challenges which all help build and establish healthy neural connections (in our case, think “swimming pool”).


Abundant and robust neural connections also require children to have relationships with attentive, sensitive, and responsive caregivers (This is part of the reason SwimKids practices private swimming instruction). When a "young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds...with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened.”

Notice that it is not the child’s babbling, gestures, or cries that strengthen neural connections, but the adult’s response!

This back and forth interaction between young children and their caregivers is called “Serve and Return.” “If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the [neural connection building] of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired.”

Ensuring Your Child’s Success

A child’s ability to learn, problem solve, enjoy feelings of self-confidence, get along with others, and approach challenges with resilience throughout his or her entire life are all greatly determined by the neural connections formed during his or her early years. These neural connections, are the result of a child’s environment and their relationships.

SwimKids’ lessons have been carefully crafted to help your child create these neural connections. The new and often difficult experience of learning how to swim is combined with one-on-one attention to set your child up for success.

But what can you do to ensure your child’s success both in swimming lessons and in life? You can lay a powerful foundation by helping them build a strong base of neural connections through rich learning experiences (like swimming lessons). Then build upon that foundation by taking advantage of every opportunity to respond to your child’s experiences in a way that helps them build neural pathways.

In practice and in the context of swimming lessons, this looks like:

  • Watching and reacting to your child’s lesson while they are swimming

  • Hugs and kisses immediately after their lesson

  • Talking to your child after the lesson about what they learned

  • Practicing swimming skills at home (holding breath, laying down in a floating position)

  • Expressing confidence in your child’s ability to learn and in their teacher’s ability to teach them.

  • Praising your child’s effort and progress while they are present during interactions with others throughout the week

These in (and out of) the moment reactions are the building blocks of your child’s future! In the pool, the classroom, the playground, and beyond.

For more on how learning environments and healthy Serve and Return relationships contribute to sturdy brain development visit Harvard's Center on the Developing Child Resource Center.