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 →
Lots of parents find hosting play dates stressful. Especially when you don’t know the other parent/child well. Or when there is a risk of behaviour getting out of hand. Is it ok to step in and discipline someone else’s child? At what age can I expect the other parent to stay or just to drop off? What if there are tears or tantrums? Hosting play dates is, frankly, a bit of a minefield!
But play dates are really important for helping children develop social skills. Children only learn to share and play co-operatively and resolve disputes if they are given opportunities to practise. Learning how to be a good friend is essential for children’s social and emotional development. Friendships promote empathy and form a template for future relationships. Play dates provide a really important framework for children to socialise and build friendships outside school/nursery. And they can also be a great opportunity for parents to build friendships too.
Here are my top tips for hosting stress-free play dates and avoiding pitfalls: Continue reading →
Reading books with children is a great way to start conversations about topics they might find difficult. Whether you have a shy child or just want to help your confident child develop empathy, reading children’s books about shyness helps children to reflect on big themes like courage, friendship and kindness.
Parents often worry about shy children missing out on friendships and opportunities. The best children’s books about shyness give the clear message that there is nothing wrong with being shy. But that sometimes shyness can get in the way of enjoyable or important things. And that sometimes, we all have to do something a little difficult in order to open the door to a new and wonderful experience.
Here are five sympathetic children’s books about shyness that tell stories about overcoming social anxieties to achieve something special. Continue reading →
Is it just me who finds the consumer-focused gifts galore side of Christmas a bit dispiriting? Maybe I’m a bit of a Grinch, but I don’t believe the magic of Christmas is bought with a credit card. In my experience, all that present-buying and over-consumption can actively get in the way of the Christmas spirit. So, this year, I challenge you to give your children presence (not just presents) for Christmas.
What does that involve? It means not prioritising present sourcing, buying or wrapping over spending time with your children. It means not slaving in the kitchen for hours at the expense of relaxing with your children. It means slowing down and tuning in for some high quality family time.
Possessing an excessive quantity of toys and gadgets is not good for children. It isn’t number of toys that drives child development or wellbeing. Making up games from string and cardboard boxes is what’s good for children!
And stopping, chilling out and playing with children is good for parents too. Spending Christmas manically trying to meet unrealistic expectations is stressful. And stressed-out parents are less tolerant and more likely to snap – hardly conducive for the Christmas spirit!
So this year, take the easy route. Don’t compete for the best dressed Christmas award. Say no to that invitation. Buy the brussels sprouts precooked and just heat them up. Take short cuts that mean you can sit down with your children and play with them. Or snuggle up for a Christmas movie. Prioritise presence over presents. Spend time in the present moment with your children rather than fretting your time away buying stocking-fillers (and dreading the bill afterwards).
Here are a few ideas for how you can give the gift of time to your children this year. 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 →
When you watch children playing, it is impossible not to be struck by how completely engaged and absorbed they are by what they are doing. Play is the epitome of mindfulness – being 100% in the moment and just going with the flow. Being truly present, without reservation, both in our actions and in our emotions. Children do it all the time.
When was the last time you felt truly in the present moment like that?
There has been a lot of theorising about how mindfulness can improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. Typical mindfulness activities include breathing exercises, meditation and yoga. But, as parents, one of the most valuable ways we can enter an engaged and relaxing flow is through playing with our children.
Now, I don’t mean the type of playing where parents are in charge. Not the type of play where you tell your child what to do or control the activity. I mean joint and reciprocal play where you are both equal and feed off each other’s ideas and signals. Like children do together.
The type of play where you tune into each other, suspend your typical roles and have real fun. 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 →
Last week I had a frantic call from The Daily Mirror. They had picked up some research on 50 ‘lost’ skills that today’s children are not learning and wanted commentary from a parenting expert. As usual, when it comes to journalism, they needed a response URGENTLY. Please could I come up with a list of the 20 most important life skills children should learn. I had 30 minutes.
The original research had been sponsored by Addis Housewares so was predictably full of domestic tasks such as darning socks and making jam. In my list, I tried to widen this (and make it a bit less gender stereotyped) to include financial management and car/bike maintenance and communication skills. I can’t say it was my most inspired 30 minutes ever but it did get me thinking.
Mulling it over afterwards, what intrigued me was not so much which exact life skills children should learn but how children learn practical life skills and why it is/isn’t happening.
Looking at my own family and friends, it does seem that children are not picking up the same practical skills they would have been equipped with 30 years ago. By the time I was twelve, I could definitely change a plug, make a cup of tea, repair a bike puncture, sew, knit, dust, hoover, grow plants, make an apple crumble and light a fire. I am not sure I could say the same for many of the kids I know (and certainly not for my own). Continue reading →
Take a look at any school playground and you will see that often boys and girls play differently. How do they differ? What are the implications for their child development? What does it mean for how parents raise girls and boys?
Of late, my most important conversations happen in the bath. Sometimes I find a magic window in my busy household and enjoy 20 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, immersed in Epsom salts, lavender oil and bicarbonate of soda. This combination is supposed to release toxins. I have no idea if this actually works. I emerge from the water, wrinkled as a prune. Happy as clam. Totally reinvigorated.
On other occasions, my ‘alone time’ seems to attract more company than one would think possible. My daughters, if not otherwise distracted, will seek me out and share my bath time in more ways than one. My youngest can disrobe startlingly quickly (this is in amusing contrast to the sloth-like pace at which she gets dressed in school uniform every week day morning, especially when we are running disastrously late). She is so silent and adept at this practise that the first I am aware of my bath time interruptus is her ninja like descent. Tom Daly would be stunned at the lack of splash. A sudden slippery seal pup squealing her delight at surprising mummy. I love these times. Top and tailed in our too small tub, and fashioning foamy hairstyles with gravity defying aplomb. We also have some very serious chats.
Today’s discussion was all about Daddy. And competition. And how much it sucks to lose. 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 →