Learning through play


Social interaction, bonding with peers, and establishing and maintaining friendships are important developmental milestones that offer children many benefits. Not only do friends have the power to boost happiness, reduce stress, and help children cope with life’s difficulties, but they can encourage learning and help children develop confidence.

Encouraging children to develop and maintain friendships in the early years is an important role for educators, and this week we look at the reasons why.

An early introduction to society

Early childhood (ECE) settings are often the first extended experiences a child has outside the home environment away from parents and carers. Early childhood services are where children learn to deal with change, interact with both peers and non-family members, and develop new skills. By sitting together to eat meals, participating in group activities and learning to follow instructions from educators, children learn what society has in store for them and how to co-exist with other people.

Understandably this is a lot for young children to absorb and this is where friendships can help to ease the transition and improve the likelihood of children making a smooth transition.

According to Olivia Liva, Director of an early childhood centre in Sydney the starting point for friendships within ECE environments lies with the educators.

“Feeling like you belong is a really natural part of human existence. In an early learning setting, a secure relationship between an educator and a child helps that child to feel like they belong and also helps to create a working model for positive relationships,” she told Kidspot, as part of an initiative with the NSW Department of Education.

The benefits of friendships in the early years

While it’s nice when children have little playmates, these first friendships are more important than most realise and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“Research is now telling us that children’s early relationships actually help to shape the way their brain is built, so these first friendships and child-teacher relationships really are foundational to those they have with others across their lifetime,” said Ms Liva.

In addition to helping children navigate their way through an exciting yet challenging new world of peers, rules and endless new activities, friendships have many other benefits for young children.

“Children can feel safe as they explore the social world and practice things like being respectful, social justice and problem-solving in a group,” added Ms Livia.

Other interesting benefits of early childhood friends include the following:

  • It’s a chance to step outside the sibling comfort zone
    While having siblings is beneficial on many levels, entering the world of interactive peer relationships is another dynamic that requires new thoughts and feelings. For example: siblings should, but don’t always, show respect and kindness to one another – something which is expected a lot more between friends and peers.
  • Children get to experience diversity
    Early learning settings incorporate children from many different cultures and backgrounds. They might speak another language, look differently or be differently abled, plus everyone has different interests, tastes and talents. Seeing what different attributes and likes or dislikes their friends have can open a child’s mind up to new ideas plus understanding and acceptance of others.
  • Friendships decrease stress and enhance mental and physical health
    Recent research shows people who feel lonely or socially isolated tend to be depressed, have poor health and may have a shorter lifespan. On the contrary, having a great social support system can help people deal with life’s hardships.

    According to Paul Schwartz, a professor of psychology and child behaviour expert, the health benefits of having friends start when you’re a child.

    “Friendships contribute significantly to the development of social skills, such as being sensitive to another’s viewpoints, learning the rules of conversation, and age-appropriate behaviours,” he said in the Hudson Valley Parent.

    “More than half the children referred for emotional behavioural problems have no friends or find difficulty interacting with peers. “

  • Increased performance and development
    “Friends also have a powerful influence on a child’s positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage or discourage deviant behaviours,” says Schwartz. “Compared to children who lack friends, children with ‘good’ friends have higher self-esteem, act more socially, can cope with life stresses and transitions, and are also less victimised by peers.”

    Some early education facilities even deliberately place children in classes with their friends to help children maintain bonds.

    “I do not believe that children can learn if they do not feel comfortable and valued in the classroom,” says Amy Symonds, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Powell Elementary School in Washington.

    “Having strong relationships with their peers is one of the many factors that helps students feel welcome…my main goal for students is to nurture their social-emotional development. I do think it is important for students to learn to work with all of their peers, but it is also important to help strengthen friendships.”

Ideas for helping kids develop positive friendships

There are many ways educators can help children to connect with one another to form friendships. Here are a few ideas:

  • Model good friendships skills – Point out friendly behaviours such as greeting others, sharing, turn taking, listening and respecting each other, and help those lacking in friendship skills to develop them. For example, to those who have trouble expressing their feelings you could share your own, for example, “That was so nice of you to share the doll with me.”
  • Practice role-play – Use toys to demonstrate how good friends behave with one another. Engaging the children to take part might help them overcome shyness and practice making friends before attempting it for real.
  • Create a safe environment – Lisa Palethorpe from Goodstart says that for any connection to form with another child or person, the child first must feel safe. Create a warm and welcoming setting where they can feel safe and connect with the parents so they can establish trust with both educators and peers.
  • Facilitate connections – Look at what’s going on and find ways to connect children to one another, for example “Henry I can see that Katie is interested in this story, shall we start from the beginning again so she can read with us too?”
  • Nurture children in small groups – Not only can it help build a sense of community, but it doesn’t overwhelm them with too many faces and too much noise.
  • Take notice of friendships – If you see children have bonded nurture this by letting them know when their friend has arrived, putting them together in group activities and advising parents in case they want to arrange playdates outside of child care.

Thanks to Kidspot/NSW Department of Education, Goodstart and Washington Post for the information cited in this article.

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Ideas for the school holidays

Kathryn Ryan from Radio NZ talks to Karen Boyes about fun and family in the school holidays.


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Nathan Wallis and our brain

If you click through to around the 7th minute into this TV programme, Nathan demonstrates, using a group of school children, how their brain works.  Take a look.

Nathan Mikaere Wallis is a neuroscience educator, early childhood teacher, primary teacher, lecturer, and parent.

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Speech Development in pre-schoolers

As heard on Radio NZ 12 April 2018 on Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan.  Copy and paste the attachment below to listen to this excellent interview.


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Nigel Latta comments on Self Control

Nigel Latta comments on Self-Control.

I’ve talked about this a few times but thought I would post an article I wrote a few years ago for the simple reason that self-control is an important predictor of future outcomes for kids. Fortunately, it’s also a skill that can be learned – so read on….
When you think about it, self-control is one of the most basic skills that we need to get through life. Self-control is what gets you through when your idiot boss tells you he needs that report by five o’clock when he’s known about it for three days. Self-control is what gets you through when you’re trying to lose a bit of weight and you see the best white chocolate muffins in the history of muffins sitting on the counter right in front of you when you go to pay for your trim flat white. Self-control is also what gets you through when your precious little one breaks the window with the ball that you’ve told them not to kick inside a thousand times.

Self-control is a very good thing.

Up until very recently though, we didn’t know just how good it was, and the story of how we found this out is almost as remarkable as the information itself. Way back in the early seventies a group of researchers at Otago University in Dunedin decided to examine every baby born in the city between 1972-73. All the parents brought all these babies in. A few years later these same researchers decided to follow up these 1073 babies to see how they were going at age 5 years. Once again all 1073 babies came back in and this time the things they discovered were so remarkable that the researchers wondered what would happen if they followed these babies for their whole lives? What would they find then? Incredibly, that is exactly what they’ve done for the last four decades.

The things they have discovered about the factors which influence our development through the lifespan are changing all of our lives. A few years ago, some of the researchers published a paper about the impact of self-control on children’s lives. In my opinion this was one of the most amazing scientific papers I have ever read (and trust me, I’ve read a few) and I also think it has really important implications for anyone who is in the business of making and growing little people.

What is self-control?
It’s kind of obvious at first glance but it’s useful to break it down a little. Fundamentally the ability to exercise self-control is about the delay gratification (which basically means waiting rather than grabbing what’s in front of your face), control impulses (so you don’t dump your popcorn over Mr Big Head who sits right in front of you at the movies), and reign in your emotions (so you don’t scream at your partner who went all the way to the supermarket and brought back everything except the can of pineapple pieces you actually wanted). Self-control is also a fundamental part of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and perseverance. There are particular parts of the brain that are involved in the exercise of self-control, and there also seem to be both genetic and environmental influences on how good we are at it.

What did the researchers find?
Before we get to that you need to promise me that you’re going to read the whole article before you do anything. If you just read this next paragraph and stop then you’re probably going to panic a bit and go off and start doing all kinds of mad stuff.
So read it all, ok?

Essentially what they found is that low self-control in children predicted all kinds of problems later in life. If you had low self-control as a child you were more likely to have problems with alcohol and drugs, become a teen parent, have financial problems, and have problems with your career. You also were more likely to experience health problems later in life as well.
Right now, out there in Littlies-land, there will be a parent who has broken out into a cold sweat having decided that their little person has very little self-control and therefore is now doomed to a life of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and crime.

So why would I burden you with this information?
Simply because just as that stuff is the bad news there is plenty of good news as well. Just like low self-control is bad, having more self-control is good. What’s more the researchers also showed self-control is something that can be developed over the lifespan, and those children who do end up doing better as a result. So if you have two children with low self-control then the one who develops/learns self-control ends up better off in adulthood.
This is important and so I’ll just say it again: Even if you have low self-control as a child then you can learn to develop self-control as you grow and this will have real benefits in your life. The big message here for all of us parents is not that low self-control is bad, but really that we can help them to develop self-control and the more we do that the better they will be.

How do you teach self-control?
So here’s the bit which is really cool, because the way that you teach children to develop this amazing, life-changing skill, is just by doing all those good old fashioned things that good mums and dads have been doing ever since children were invented. You don’t have to buy any special equipment or learn some special technique or learn special magical words. You just keep doing what you’ve always been doing.
If you think about the basic tasks involved in self-control (delaying gratification, managing your feelings, controlling your impulses, persevering, and being conscientious) it all becomes much simpler. All you need to do is help them to see the connection between those things and the payoffs, and then giving them plenty of chances to practice self-control.

Here are a few ideas to get you started… most of which you will almost certainly already be doing:
* Reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour. This provides motivation to control those little impulses and focus on the longer term reward.
* Don’t give them everything they want whenever they want it. Make them wait for things from time to time. Waiting is a skill that needs practice.
* Teach them that sometimes you have to do things you don’t like (eg picking up your toys) to get access to things you do like (eg walks in the park).
* Praise sharing with their friends and others. This helps them to understand that grabbing stuff first isn’t as big a payoff as good times with the people you co-operate with.
* If you start walking up a hill don’t give up just because little legs get a bit tired. Push on and then make a big deal of the sense of achievement you get from doing things that are hard. The best views tend to be from the top of the hill in life, not the bottom.
* When they are old enough for pocket money pay them a pittance. You learn more if you have to save hard for something, and it means more to you when you eventually get it.
* Model all of these things as much as you can. None of us are perfect, let’s be honest, just practice what you preach as much as you can manage.
* Instead of telling them how clever they are, praise the effort. So instead of saying how clever they are for building a block tower tell them what hard workers they are and that the reason they are so good at building block towers is because they work away at and practice really hard.
* Learn that guests choose their biscuits first.
* Even if you are angry you still have to speak nicely to your parents. This is a skill they will need when they get their first job working for an idiot. Sometimes you just have to shut up and smile politely.
* Basically anything and everything that involves them reigning in their impulses and focusing on the bigger picture.

Remember that it’s a developing thing
It’s very important to remember that self-control is not something little people possess in any great amount. Most young children have very little self-control. If the block tower falls over many of them will dissolve into tears and tantrums in abundance. If they can’t have the dolly with the pink dress they scream. If you don’t give them the blue cup right now the world ends. All this is very normal. It usually takes about a decade for children to really master self-control in any meaningful way. Some of us struggle with self-control many decades down the track. It’s normal for young children to be impulsive, selfish, instant reward oriented, impatient and short sighted.
All these things are simply part of the journey from no control to having as much of it as you can manage. The ability to exercise self-control is important but just like any life-skill (eg juggling, lion taming, solving Rubik’s cube) it takes time and a lot of practice.

The really important thing here is that there is now some very solid science which totally supports all that old common sense stuff mums and dads have been doing forever. What’s especially nice I think is that we can now say with absolute certainty to our children that it really is important to let the guests choose their biscuit first, to share your toys, and to figure out some other thing to do when your little brother annoys you other than clouting him. We can say and know with absolute certainty that we are helping them to be better, healthier, more productive, and happier grownups.

And that’s the best science of all.

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