There has been a lot in the press recently about the role of digital technology in children’s lives and whether kids are becoming addicted to screens and smart phones. There is no doubt that children are spending more time on digital devices and from a much younger age. Exactly what the impact of that will be on children’s brains is still not fully understood. But what worries me most is not what the screens are doing to our children but what our children aren’t doing because they are on screens. And the biggest loser is free play.
Free play is a special type of play that is child-led and child-driven. During free play, children (not adults) choose what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to stop. It’s not an organised activity – think bored Sunday afternoons building dens out of sofa cushions rather than tennis lessons. Free play has no externally set learning goals, it is self-directed learning fuelled by fun and curiosity.
Why is free play important?
Play is the most important thing a child can do. Play builds children’s brains. Babies are born with a brain full of cells called neurons which look a bit like pieces of string. By interacting with their environment and having experiences, these neurons become associated together and link up into pathways which store knowledge and skills. Through repeated experimentation, children learn the fundamental principles of the universe – that water flows and objects fall to the ground, that some things fit inside other things and that pebbles sink. No matter how many times a child sees a plane on the TV (or travels in one), she will really learn how air holds up flying objects by tying her dolls to makeshift plastic bag parachutes and throwing them down the stairs… Continue reading →
When it comes to gender, science has got a poor track record. Across the centuries there has been a consistent tendency for scientists to come to big conclusions about the differences between men and women, boys and girls, based on pretty flimsy evidence. And usually these have been conclusions which conveniently justify existing inequalities and the power status quo.
Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences sets out to systematically challenge and dismantle this neuroscientific sexism that uses skewed science to prove that women are inherently more suited to caring roles and men to action and objective decision-making. But the brilliance of the book is that she does it, not through ideology but by unpicking centuries of flawed scientific methods and unconscious bias. Taking on the scientists at their own game. Continue reading →
Boredom is good for children because it stimulates curiosity and fires the imagination. At its best, boredom is a creative state that leads to new ideas and new play. And we know that good quality play drives children’s development and builds intelligence.
But boredom is good for children only when it results in children using their imagination to rise to the challenge of boredom. If they always turn on the TV or reach for tech as an easy chewing-gum boredom filler, then that spark of imagination is lost.
Imagination is vital for children of all ages. It stimulates children to explore their environment in new ways, which in turn leads to learning and skills development. Imagination also enhances social skills – after all, empathy is really just the ability to imagine being in someone else’s shoes.
And, because imagination is an internal resource – a habit of mind – it is something that children need to develop through practice and repetition. Adults providing imaginative activities for children is never as effective as children inventing their own.
Here’s how parents can harness the power of boredom to support children’s development: Continue reading →
Concerns about managing children’s screen time and the impacts of technology on children’s wellbeing are high on the worry list for modern parents. But most advice on positive parenting seems to have been written in a golden age when wrestling iPads off children just wasn’t an issue. So how can modern parents adapt positive parenting techniques to help manage children’s tech time?
The problem with children using technology is that tech use tends to expand to fill all available time. That can displace many other valuable activities that are vital for children’s healthy development. Like running around. And face-to-face communication. And physical play.
Tech is an easy boredom-filler. But boredom is an essential driver in children’s development through which they learn creativity and self-sufficiency and new ways of interacting with their environment.
And it’s not just children’s use of technology that’s at issue. Digitally-distracted adults are less able to provide the connection, attention and eye contact that help children develop healthy brains and essential life-skills. Parents and children are now spending more time in each other’s physical proximity but we are talking to each other less. Continue reading →
The absolute best way for children to learn social skills is through practice. Young children needs lots of opportunities to play with other kids – older, younger and the same age. There will be some bumps as children make mistakes and refine their social strategies but, in general, the more opportunities children have to practise social skills, the more quickly they learn them.
Sometimes, children need a little bit of adult intervention to help them on their way. Snuggling up with a story can be a great way to talk through issues sensitively with young children and introduce new ideas. When it comes to social skills, there are some great books out there to help you raise your little one’s awareness of key issues like sharing, empathy, friendship and patience. Here are my recommendations for the best books to teach children social skills (for children aged 2-7yrs). Continue reading →
Babies are born with almost all the neurons in their brains that they will need as adults. Their first developmental task is to start linking those neurons together to form the neural circuits that govern knowledge and skills. Growing babies’ brains is serious work!
In the first year of life, a baby’s brain develops these neural networks very rapidly. That development is driven partly by genes but also by the baby’s experiences and environment. So it is vital that babies get a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment.
Here are my top tips for how parents can help grow their babies’ brains: Continue reading →
As the parent of teenagers, I have found that knowing a little bit about their internal mechanisms really helps me keep some of their less desirable behaviour in perspective. So, for your amusement and edification, here are a few weird and wonderful facts about teenagers that might explain why they do the things they do….
Teenagers can’t remember future tasks
Teenagers have poor prospective memories which means they are not very good at holding things in their heads to remember to do later. When you nag them, it really does go in one ear and out the other. Teaching teens to use props like timetables, planners and checklists can help get them organised (see Teaching teens self-organisation skills). Continue reading →
If I had a penny for every time I have been asked about teaching children to share, I would be a very rich parenting expert indeed! It is one of the first post-babyhood problems that parents of toddlers bump up against. Teaching children to share is linked to teaching kindness and to the personal values that we strive to develop in our children. And it can feel like a daily battleground if you have more than one child! Sharing-phobia can also rear its head again during the self-obsessed teenage years.
So, teaching children to share definitely isn’t a one-off activity.
Here’s a quick summary of my most frequently asked questions about teaching children to share and a few tips to help you set off on the right track. Continue reading →
Brain-based parenting: The Neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment (by Daniel A. Hughes & Jonathan Baylin) tries to do something truly amazing – to explain the chemical and emotional brain mechanisms that interact to create and sustain the loving bond parents feel for our children. That magical bond that makes us love every inch of them, that makes us prioritise our children’s needs over our own and keeps their wellbeing central to our thoughts and fears. And that stops us throwing them out the window when they are at their most annoying and antagonistic. This is magical territory indeed.
This book covers some really crucial topics – like the importance of parents’ emotional self-regulation in parenting effectively and the negative impact of stress on parents’ ability to tune into their children empathetically (and remain the ‘adult in the room’). There are some fascinating insights into the roles of oxytocin and dopamine in building the parent-child relationship and ensuring the parent gets pleasure from it (and therefore wants to engage even more). And a truly wonderful “caregiving formula” comprising playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy to optimise a reciprocal and nurturing parent-child relationship. Continue reading →
Regular readers will know that I am passionate about play. Play helps children organise their brains and wire up their neurons. Children need room to roam, physically and imaginatively, so their opportunities for play are as wide and as varied as possible. That’s how they develop flexible and adaptive brains that can rise to challenges and solve problems. Good quality play builds intelligence.
If children’s play is confined to a particular type or activity or location then they can miss out on that full range of developmental opportunities.
Parents’ desire to keep children safe is natural and right. But, in the modern world, keeping children safe often equates to keeping children indoors. That increased time indoors (in often sedentary or low-movement activities) is having a direct impact on children’s physical development and future health. But it also impacts on their brains. Continue reading →
Contrary to popular belief, being able to read, write or do arithmetic are the least important skills that a pre-schooler needs in order to be ready to start school. In fact, only 4% of teachers rate these as important factors in ‘school readiness’.
So what is school readiness, why is it important and what can parents do to ensure their pre-schoolers get off to a flying start at school?
The most important factors that determine whether a preschooIer is ready for learning have nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with attitude. The best learners (whether they are four or eighty-four) are independent, confident to try things out and, above all, curious. For a four-year-old, that means being able to manage their own bodies and interact competently with their environment, being able to recognise similarities/differences, trying different solutions to solve problems and using words to ask questions. Continue reading →
Lots of the characteristics that we associate with maturity are related to the brain’s frontal lobes. This part of the brain governs our higher executive functions such as being able to switch between tasks, weighing things up and planning ahead. The frontal lobes are not fully developed until early adulthood (around 25 years old) – which goes some way to explaining why teenagers can look so mature on the outside but make such bad decisions.
There is quite a bit of evidence that girls’ frontal lobes tend to develop faster than boys’. This might explain the truism that girls mature earlier and might also be one factor in why teenage girls do better at GCSEs than boys. Being better at task planning, time management and self-organisation is a real advantage when it comes to studying.
But, while we are waiting for our teens’ brains to catch up and get with the programme, there is a lot parents can do to provide external structures and tools for teaching teens self-organisation skills (regardless of whether they are girls or boys).
And it is a truly admirable book. Sara Meadows sets out to summarise everything that science currently tells us about how children develop. Encyclopaedic in scope, each chapter examines the science of children from a different angle – from genetics to psychoneuroendocrinology to epidemiology and beyond. A commitment to scientific method runs throughout this book and Meadows’ rigorous examination of the evidence base is welcome in a field where so many so-called ‘parenting experts’ base theories of bringing up children on anecdote and subjective experience. Continue reading →
There is so much parenting advice out there and so little time to sift through it. So I thought I’d come up with a handy summary to help you out. If you’ve only got five minutes and are going to read just one thing about parenting this month, then here’s my pick of the best advice for you!
Give me a baby and I can’t help experimenting on her. Sticking out my tongue to see if she will copy, striking up a ‘making-faces’ conversation, looking at an object to see if she will follow my gaze, playing peekaboo. Now that my children are older, I don’t get much baby time but The Psychology of Babies by Lynne Murray makes a great substitute.
This fabulous book recreates classic developmental psychology experiments in an easy-to-follow photo format specifically designed to support parents and practitioners in decoding babies’ behaviour and understanding why babies do the things they do.