My youngest recently turned eight. While he’s far from grown up just yet, there’s no denying that he’s not a littlie any more. There are many educational and philosophical approaches that treat the first seven years as a particular period of development in a child’s life – for good reason. The early years are uniquely important, challenging – and lovely. It can be hard to take a breath when you’re in the middle of them, but if you get a moment, here’s what I’ve learnt now my four are all firmly in the next stage of life.
- Playing really is enough. Really really really. We had years of doll’s birthday parties, Lego building, colouring, and conversations. And it built intelligent, knowledgable, interested and interesting children.
- Don’t worry about your child reading, or writing, or doing maths, or filling in worksheets. This time only comes round once. If they like playing school, awesome. If not, that’s OK. The world does not end if your six year old isn’t reading yet. I promise.
- Reading reading reading. Works for everything. And I don’t mean them – I mean you. Picture books, chapter books, stories in the car; make stories a key part of your family life.
- Don’t be too eager to push on to the harder books or the finer crafts. Those things will still be there when your child is ready, but your children won’t go back to the younger ones. Savour the times when Milly-Molly-Mandy is an exciting ride, and cutting strips of paper into tiny pieces is enough.
- But don’t think they can’t handle more. Let your toddler watch the documentary about black holes. Read poetry and Shakespeare in snippets alongside Peepo. Give them quality art supplies, not just the wax crayons that can’t make a decent line. Make the offer and see what they take up.
- It’s about impressions, not details. This stage of life is about cultivating wonder. It doesn’t matter if they get the details right. It matters that they are engaging with ideas.
- You don’t need screens. Your child will not grow up a technological dunce if they’re not touch-typing by five. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t have computers till their teens. If screens don’t fit in with your family, your children are not missing out.
- But you don’t need to stress about them either. There are lots of valuable and creative things that screens can offer. Figure out what works best for your family, know that it will need continual adjustment, and move on.
- Choose toys that encourage imagination and creativity – for your child, not anyone else’s. Some children might respond best to a total blank slate and freedom to build with materials. Others need something to spark off – figures, animals, houses, a colouring page and not a blank piece of paper. Toys like Lego can combine both.
Encouragement and practical tips
- This will pass. It gets easier. Or at least less full-on. There will come a time when all the children are busy and quiet and you can do whatever you want. It’s kinda magical.
- They sleep eventually. Mine were four or five before I could expect a full night’s sleep, but it happened. It really did.
- It gets less messy. I wouldn’t say mess-free, but… better.
- It’s a logistical nightmare. It just is. It’s not you. Naps, snacks, clothing, toileting, trying to get from the front door to the car with everyone still dry… chaos theory has nothing on it.
- Rhythm is comforting. Time pressure is not. It feels safe and reassuring for a child to do the same sorts of things at breakfast, go to the same places, have the same bedtime routine. It does not feel good for anyone to be beholden to the clock telling you precisely when to do all those things. Sometimes you do need to keep time… but mostly it doesn’t matter that much.
- Moving is important. Outside is good but inside counts too. Backflips on the sofa or clambering around on the rocks will benefit your child just as much – probably more – than a page of sums.
- It’s easier to not introduce things than to roll them back later. It’s good to say yes, but then you will be expected to say yes forever. So keep that in mind. Your job is to curate what comes into your child’s experience. Their job is to choose from the things you offer. None of us can have absolutely anything we want, and it probably wouldn’t be much fun if we could.
- Keep a bag of spare clothes in the car at all times.
- Snacks and a drink of water fix most things.
- You don’t have to go big on the messy crafts and cooking if you don’t want to. There’s time later, when it can all be (slightly) more controlled.
- Most stressful things will just get better with time. They won’t always pitch a fit because someone has the coloured plate they wanted. They’ll get better at losing. Growing up has a lot of magic in it.
- It’s delightful (at moments). Notice and enjoy it when it is. They will never love you as purely as they do now.
Are you still in the little years? What are your top tips? What do you wish someone had told you? What are you hoping will change one day, and what will you be sad to lose?