Let Child Development and Not Child Care Guide What We Offer Young Children

Childhood is amazing, so much miraculous growth and development over the first few years of a child’s life. It’s so important that we give children what they need for a happy, healthy childhood.

Children enter the world as helpless babies and in a matter of a few short years become walking, talking bundles of energy, full of questions and curiousity. The impetus to gain skills and knowledge comes from within the child who is not an empty vessel or blank slate to be filled by an adult blueprint. Nature has ensured that little humans have all the drive they need not just to survive, but to thrive. All children ask is to be given love and support and a stimulating environment. We do not teach child development step by step, it seems to happen miraculously when a child is ready. Of course the more attentive and attuned to a child we are the more able we are to create the opportunities for each skill to emerge when the time comes. There is a strong parallel with gardening where the knowledgeable gardener creates the right conditions and protects the plants in their care.  Personalised, child centred care is crucial in those formative years, there is no need for formal educational tuition, indeed it can be counterproductive. Small children value their independence: “me do it” is said with great determination.

In recent years more and more children in the UK are at the mercy of adults in a hurry. They want to steal a march on education, send children to school already able to read write and count. If we start early they say we will give children a head start. Politicians have taken up this rallying cry talking about the global educational race, though no self-respecting early year’s advisor or child psychologist would ever have recommended it to them. Politicians home in on parental anxiety about an uncertain future and assume they have a vote winner. Now we have the major parties upping the hours of free entitlement to the average length of a school day. It is likely the pressure to focus on literacy and maths and to reduce independent, creative play will accelerate.

There is no evidence that earlier introduction of academics is effective. There is substantial comparative evidence from other countries that a later start to formal education does no harm. The UK are part of a small group of nations which start school before 6 and in the UK most children entering a Reception Class are only 4 years old. The Summerborn Campaign gains its urgency from this early start which makes the youngest in the cohort even more vulnerable. What we risk by introducing formal academics too early is that children’s development is compromised by this ill-advised rush to get children sitting down and doing work at a table like the bigger children. At age 4 most children have not got the skills in place they need for formal learning so progress is likely to be frustratingly slow. More haste less speed as my grandmother used to say. Whereas when we let children develop the skills they need through independent play and practice then later on things will fall into place.

Most people including Primary School teachers have limited knowledge of the stages of child development. This is rather surprising given that we have small children starting school who have unfinished business in that department. If you are interested to know more there are links below to useful guides where you can explore the stages of skill development in detail.

So what do we mean by child development and what are the key skills which emerge gradually over the first 6 years? Before you look up the guides below you may find these short summaries useful. Each section starts with baby skills and overviews what most children can do by 5 or 6 years old. As you can see when 4 year olds start school they are unlikely to have all the skills in place which help with formal learning. They remain better suited to play based learning which draws on their preference to follow what satisfies their developmental priorities. By age 6 or 7 the corner stones of mental and physical development are established and this firm foundation enables a child to work more collaboratively with both peers and adults.  At 4 years old a child is still flexing their physical and mental developmental muscles and need a wide range of experiences to meet their physical and cognitive needs.

The Early Years Foundation Stage which finishes at the end of the Reception Year is designed to be holistic and developmentally appropriate to each child’s needs. It is designed to give children the support they need to be ready for statutory education at age 5.  Sadly the hurry towards formal schooling risks cutting this short.

The developmental milestones mentioned below are based on typical development (what is average for the majority) but do be aware that individuals will differ whether or not there is a special need.

Physical mobility

Babies can move their arms and legs but do not have the core strength to sit or roll over. By the age of 6 a child is likely to be able to hop, skip, jump, climb and catch a ball. These skills require fine-tuned movement which takes time to master. Most 4 year olds have mastered the gross motor skills like running and climbing but may find the more finely tuned movements challenging.

The early years require a lot of freedom for the child to use their body and test out what skills are now open to them as their physiology matures making finely coordinated movements more accessible. This is not a time for extended activities seated at a table. Children through their behaviour show us what they need and sitting still is not what they are after. Children who have had restricted opportunities for active play are also likely to be slower to achieve developmental milestones.

Hand control

A baby can grasp a finger but cannot pick up or put objects down voluntarily. By the age of 6 a child can make finely tuned movements to pick up small objects between the fingers and place them exactly as planned. The early years is a time when children need lots of opportunity to explore and handle materials, to gain sensory experience and test out what their maturing arms and hands are now capable of doing. I watched a child roll up and unrolling a poster repeatedly recently as he delighted in his ability to make this happen. When we have children in a formal classroom by the age of 4 many of them won’t have the dexterity needed to draw and write successfully and they will experience unnecessary frustration. This could be avoided if children were allowed to handle arts and crafts material in free play for longer before formal literacy is introduced.

Language and Listening 

The vital element for sparking language development is having a quality 1 to 1 relationship with an attuned and responsive adult. This is certainly the primary need in the first 3 years of life as communication skills emerge. The child’s ability to be part of a group listening and talking to each other comes later and emerges slowly. The pinnacle of achievement for the young child is the ability to restrain what you want to do and tune into an adult who is talking to the group. Most children are still learning to do this in their 6th year. Children’s language is a key skill needed for successful play with friends and shared play is rather fragile right through this whole period. From the age of 3 children play together more often and more complex and sustained play develops as 4 and then 5 year olds mature. It is tough work to manage your own enthusiasms and accommodate the needs of others and most children can only do this briefly at first. Play is a highly successful medium for using and developing language as children learn to listen, share and make themselves understood while having fun. There are considerable disadvantages in cutting the opportunities for imaginative play short just as children are getting up ahead of steam at the age of 4.

Thinking and reasoning

The ability to acquire knowledge (known as cognitive skills) develops in parallel with language. Children need the vocabulary to name objects and the reasoning skills to think about their characteristics. “What is this?” “What can it do?” The ability to question and be curious is an important aspect of the early years and a skilled adult works with what engages a child. Older children from around age 6 can shift their attention to something an adult introduces and sustain attention to a teacher’s agenda. Younger children may start by showing interest but can become distracted and loose attention. This is why a more instructional approach is traditionally not introduced until Junior School at age 7

Personal, social and emotional skills

The child’s understanding of the world and what is possible is a slow steady process of growth determined by experience. A baby lives mainly in the moment and any unmet need feels like a permanent loss. As the child’s memory develops so their ability to predict what will happen increases, assuming of course that they experience predictable and attentive care. By the age of 2 the increasingly physically capable child has a sense that they can make things happen but find the times when this isn’t possible devastating. They dissolve into overwhelming grief. We should never underestimate the real distress children experience as toddlers.

As language and thought matures then a child’s ability to manage their emotions also matures alongside. However because children have so little control over their world the frustrations continue. Sand timers are often used in nurseries to help develop turn taking and waiting. Children love the sense of both fairness and predictability and will often go to fetch a timer to help in negotiations over a toy. Handing over your control of what you do to a teacher within a large group of child has huge potential for frustration when children are still learning to self-regulate. I put the increase in challenging behaviour in 4 year olds in school down to this mismatch between development and what is expected of them.

Attention control and concentration

A baby’s focus is immediate and anything that drops out of sight is soon forgotten. The child’s ability to focus remains stronger for activities they have chosen throughout childhood and certainly under 6s struggle to stay with a task which has been set for them. Concentrating on what the teacher is saying is challenging for 4 year olds and anyone who has spent time in a Reception Class will know of the seemingly endless non- sequiturs as children pursue their own line of thought despite the adult’s best attempts to keep everyone on track. This is the danger of introducing formal teaching too early, visit a year 2 class of 6 and 7 year olds and you will see lively engagement between the children and their teacher which is a joy to see.  

So let’s treat childhood as the tender and precious time when children find out all about themselves and the world around them in a way which is determined by what they are ready and able to do. Too much too soon will only lead to frustration and disappointment

Further reading

 Development Matters – in the Early Years Foundation Stage


The role of toys and Play in Child Development by Jeni Hooper


What to expect when- a parent’s guide




About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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