The most critical stage of a child’s life, the first five years, is under the control of you, the parents. By control I mean that you have the opportunity and the obligation to profoundly shape your child’s development. Children don’t simply grow up by themselves. If they do, there are likely to be unfortunate outcomes. What you do with your children determines how they will respond to other people, how well they do in school, and what successes they will have or not have in their lives. This is a tall order, but it boils down to a few basic but critical principles.
As parents, we are in charge of the growth stages our children go through; and in charge of their activities, known as developmental play. This sounds pretty silly of course parents take care of their kids while they grow and play! But most of us don’t know how important it is to grow and play during those first five years. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (http://developingchild.harvard.edu/) calls it developing the architecture of the brain.
In their ground-breaking research, they tell us that 700 new neural connections are made every second during the first few years of life, 700 every second, faster than at any other time in our lives. These connections are made through a child’s relationships with parents and significant others, and their experiences (good and bad) within their environment.
While it seems that all they do is play during their first five years, playing is actually a child’s work; and is crucial for physical health, intellectual stimulation, social/emotional development, and interpersonal skills. Play is how children learn language, develop their executive functions for logic and planning, learn how to take risks and deal with failure, and increase their self-confidence and positive self-esteem.
Each child develops at their own rate, and will demonstrate greater skill in some areas than in others as they go through the various socialization stages of play; but the developmental sequence is the same. Play forms the basis for success in language and academics, and developing coping skills and resilience by falling down and getting up again in a secure environment.
The first five years of life are important because the early experiences that kids have, positive and negative, make a huge impression on their new brains and bodies. Look at it this way we know that an infant’s skin is far more sensitive to the sun than an adults because it hasn’t been exposed enough to the sun; but over time it becomes tougher.
Much the same is true of the rest of a child’s body, their brain, and their emotions while none of us is born as a blank slate, our new brains develop new pathways very quickly, and these pathways are very sensitive to new information.
This does not mean that you have to be the perfect parent, but it does mean you need to pay attention to your children’s needs from infancy onward. By the time they reach school age, the trajectory of their future growth is set; and problems are much harder to fix.
Everyone has experienced the Terrible Twos, the Inquisitive Threes and the Hormonal Teenage years; but as young parents, very few understand that cognitive, social and emotional capabilities are inextricably linked throughout our lives with our genetic makeup and physical development. Influences begin prenatally, and provide a good, or not so good, foundation for future development.
The foundations for healthy development are positive love and affection for social and emotional growth; good nutrition for healthy bodies, as well as for healthy brain development; and positive, safe environments where a child’s needs are met i.e., you love your children enough to give them the right foods and a safe, positive home.