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Blog post Part of special issue: BERA Blog Special Issues: BERA/TACTYC

The Missing Link? Brain and Body in early learning and development – what the research review does and doesn’t tell us

Janet Rose Louise Gilbert

The early years education field has always emphasised the holistic nature of early development and learning despite the continued prevalence of separate subject- or development-based domains proliferating early years curricula throughout the UK. The recent BERA SIG/TACTYC research review ( has evidenced a continued resistance to linear, reductionist interpretations of learning and development. The review reiterates a recognition of the dynamic, universal and interconnected nature of development and learning, and the complex, multi-faceted ways in which development and learning in early childhood are generated and supported within socio-cultural contexts. But it has also shown that early years research in the UK may not be giving sufficient attention to new insights being developed, largely in the USA, about the neurobiological and neurophysiological interconnections between the brain and body.

The review has shown how young children need diverse, multi-sensory experiences to help them develop skills to foster their own learning.

So what did the review tell us? For the most part, traditional insights have been restated, such as the significance of active engagement with the socio-cultural context, and how nurturing and contingent relationships mediate much of young children’s learning. The review has shown how young children need diverse, multi-sensory experiences to help them develop skills to foster their own learning. The importance and nature of dialogic encounters continue to receive attention and an enduring emphasis on the role of play is still the golden thread that runs through much of the literature related to early learning and development. Moreover, the early years curriculum continues to be hindered by controversy related to its increasing formalisation and the role of the adult within it. And the old debates regarding literacy development remain unresolved beyond a reiteration of how literacy and numeracy is a collaborative and collective act facilitated through cultural experiences and identities.  

It is also encouraging to see signs of challenges to metatheories, and their accompanying restricted focus on cognition, which have dominated the field of early learning and development and still proliferate in standard textbooks. The growing evidence emerging from the neurosciences is contesting some of Piagetian stage theory, with an increasing recognition that development proceeds in a web of multiple strands, via parallel coalitions of multi-sensory neural networks. Young children do not appear to think qualitatively differently from adults, they merely lack experience. Consideration of developmental dimensions that previously have had scant attention, such as children’s spirituality, musicality and arts based learning, are also filling some of the gaps in our understanding. In this rapidly advancing digital age, the impact of technology on children’s learning and development is also receiving deserved consideration. Young children’s utilisation of resources, and the wide variety of multi-modal representations of children’s thinking and understanding have been explored more widely.

New ways of understanding developmental delay through research that focuses on neurophysiological development is growing, with the importance of outdoor learning and physical literacy being given greater attention. These are promising signs. Such endeavours affirm the biopsychosocial model of human development (Engel, 1977), which embraces a systems approach to the brain/body link, and the child’s active engagement with multi-directional relationships and resources within the local and global milieu. But there is more than can be done.

So what was missing? As our knowledge of the physiological, psychological, sociological and neurobiological components of childhood have increased, traditional boundaries between different disciplines are breaking down leading to the adoption of what has been termed a consilience approach to understanding human development (Sroufe and Siegel, 2011). We need more research which focuses explicit attention on the inter- and intra-relatedness of neurobiological and neurophysiological systems and their relationship to complex social contexts (Porges, 2011; Shonkoff and Garner, 2012), including the work on the new field of interpersonal neurobiology (Siegel, 2012). Old studies that have opened up insights into the impact of early experiences on health, for example, are receiving renewed attention ( ) and there is a call for greater critical awareness and engagement in multidisciplinary research to develop a broader understanding (Palghat et al., 2017).

Although early years practice has a tradition of being informed by a wide knowledge base, there is still a relative dearth of constructive discussion in UK early years research literature on appropriate interpretations of neuroscientific findings and their potential application in creating optimal learning and development opportunities. Of course we need to proceed with caution and guard against some of the mistranslations of research findings that have permeated educational practice (Donoghue and Horvath, 2016). The BERA/TACTYC review shows that we are already beginning to explore the provision of embodied learning opportunities and, with due attention, early years researchers are well placed to contribute to how the brain and body connection can be more explicitly acknowledged and constructively researched, addressing the missing link.


Donoghue, G. and Horvath, J. (2016) Translating neuroscience, psychology and education, an abstracted conceptual framework for the learning sciences. Cogent Education,3(1). [Online]. Available from  (Accessed on 19 May 2017)

Engel, G. (1977) The Need for a New Medical Model: A Challenge for medicine.  Science 196: 129–36

Palghat, K., Horvath, J. and Lodge, J. (2017) The hard problem of educational neuroscience. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 6, pp. 204-10

Porges, S. (2011) The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: Norton and Company.

Sroufe, A. and Siegel, D. (2011) The Verdict Is In: The case for Attachment theory. Psychological Networker [online].  Available at: [accessed on 26 December 2014].

Shonkoff, J. and Garner, A. (2012) The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Technical report. American Academy of Pediatrics. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23 April 2016)

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