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Advice from the Experts: Choosing the Right Activity for Your Child
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Dr Kairen Cullen is a leading Chartered Educational Psychologist, author, mother and grandmother. She has helped countless children, young people, parents and adults and has supported many families experiencing a wide variety of learning and behavioural issues.
We caught up with her recently to discuss developmental milestones, discover how early years activities boost development and get her top tips on how to choose the right activities for your child.
What do we need to know about the different areas of child development, and developmental milestones?
Think of them in broad areas such as physical, cognitive (including intellectual development and creativity), social, emotional, behavioural, language, and sensory (processing information through sensory organs such as eyes and ears). All of these things are aspects of every child's development.
When we're thinking about an average 4-year-old who's about to start school, there's certain things we would expect. For example, they would have reasonably fluent language to express their needs and be able to interact with others. In terms of social and emotional growth, they'd be starting to play much more cooperatively, as well as independently.
They would be becoming more proficient in their listening and looking skills, and early number and literacy skills will be on their way too.
Their capacity to do things like problem solving, remembering and learning (cognitive development) will all be gathering momentum – and continue to do so for the next 3 decades.
That's the current thinking: that the human brain is not fully developed until our early to mid 30s. Mind-blowing isn't it?!
All of these foundations are being set at this very early stage, so the sort of activities that children are doing – at nursery, at school and at home – all of these experiences are really important.
Where should we start when choosing an activity?
Thinking about broader developmental areas, such as physical, age-appropriate activities can really help: babies need tummy time, for example; and nursery and school-age children should be running around as much as possible!
Puzzles are great for cognitive development. And for the social and emotional side, finding opportunities for your children to interact with others their own age is really beneficial.
When it comes to trying something new, remember: you are an expert on your child.
As a parent, you have in-depth, emotionally-invested knowledge, so draw on that – and draw on your intuition too. If you want some recommendations or another point of view on things your child might enjoy, ask those who are involved in your child’s life – relatives, family friends – and of course the experts! Those who have studied child learning. These are valuable sources. Then tailor your choice of activities to your child, your situation and your budget.
How can we help our kids in feeling confident to try something new?
Try to avoid getting into a situation where you say ‘you know best’ and insist that something must happen – against your child's wishes. It’s best to create an ethos of simply trying things out. Some ways you can encourage this are:
Say things like: “I think this would be really interesting to try…”
Include some ‘selling points’ such as: “Your friend is going!” or “Afterwards we'll be getting a hot chocolate” (or something else they like).
Rather than getting too fixed about what they like or don't like, encourage this ‘trying things out’ approach.
Often the factor that’s stopping children (or anyone really) trying new things, is fear. If you can delve into that – using your in-depth knowledge and expertise of your child – and understand what is making them feel afraid or resistant, you can address that. There's a lot you can do: trust your knowledge of what will be good – and fun – for them.
Are there any activities that are just good across the board?
My favourite is cooking – it’s brilliant! It ticks so many boxes. It's collaborative, it's social, it uses lots of interesting materials – and there's an outcome at the end, a sense of achievement.
You’ve also got things like number skills – counting, measuring and estimation – and lots and lots of language.
Messy play is another great activity. It allows children to explore (without needing a specific outcome), be in the moment, and try things out. There’s nothing quite like being in mud or sand or water!
There’s a sense that the pandemic meant children missed out on socialising in various ways. Are some parents now overloading their kids’ schedules, to try and make up for it?
Unfortunately we’re still feeling the effects of the pandemic – there’s a sort of legacy anxiety.
When it comes to parents organising activity schedules for their children, there can be this idea of ‘they've missed a year or two, so we must do as much as we can now’ – but that’s a bit counterproductive. Because if it’s less enjoyable – the child is overtired, or going to activities seems like a chore – then we’ll lose all the gains of providing these wonderful things for them to do. Make sure to not overdo it, and think about quality over quantity: it’s better to have one or two really enjoyable activities than a jam-packed schedule.
How can we get the most from activities? How can we help our children’s developmental journey?
Checking in – both with our kids and with their childcare providers – is the main thing. Keep communicating, and keep informed – of course, you should do your research beforehand with regard to the learning outcomes expected from different activities.
And hopefully activity providers are making suggestions to parents and carers around how they can follow through, and support their child’s learning. Because that’s what good early years practice is all about: home-school liaison (and this should be the case for activities too).
Parents can be creative about tracking children’s learning and monitoring progress, and there’s some good tech out there too. But it’s really important to remember that school is school, and home is home – they are quite rightly very different! Home isn’t a formal learning situation, and actually nor are nurseries or early years settings. The important thing is the interaction with the child, not following them around with a clipboard checking on developmental progress.
Finally, what’s your top tip?
Have fun! Honestly, really have some fun. Enjoy these years, they really do go by so fast. It's hard work being a parent, you’ve got to do so much, an awful lot – but remember to enjoy it. With activities, there are so many that you can get involved in too, things you can do together – you’ll both get so much from it.