Neuronal circuits are shaped by experience during critical periods of early postnatal life. The ability to control the timing, duration, and closure of these heightened levels of brain plasticity has recently become experimentally accessible, especially in the developing visual system. This review summarizes our current understanding of known critical periods across several systems and species. It delineates a number of emerging principles: functional competition between inputs, role for electrical activity, structural consolidation, regulation by experience (not simply age), special role for inhibition in the CNS, potent influence of attention and motivation, unique timing and duration, as well as use of distinct molecular mechanisms across brain regions and the potential for reactivation in adulthood. A deeper understanding of critical periods will open new avenues to "nurture the brain"-from international efforts to link brain science and education to improving recovery from injury and devising new strategies for therapy and lifelong learning.