The first five years of a child’s life are critical for development. The experiences children have in these years help shape the adults they will become. More than anything else, your relationship with your child shapes the way your child learns and grows.
About early child development
Development is the term used to describe the changes in your child’s physical growth, as well as her ability to learn the social, emotional, behaviour, thinking and communication skills she needs for life. All of these areas are linked, and each depends on and influences the others.
In the first five years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life. The early experiences your child has – the things he sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate his brain, creating millions of connections. This is when foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life are laid down.
Both genes and the environment influence your child’s development.
Genes are the blueprint for your child’s development and carry information about what your child will look like, how she might behave, her physical and mental health and more. The information in a child’s genes comes from her mother and father.
The environment is the experiences your child has in his family, school and the wider community. The environment influences things like your child’s language, as well as how independent he is, how well he bounces back from tough times and how good he is at forming relationships.
As your child develops, genes and environment influence each other. The way your child’s genes and environment work together affects her development. For example, how your toddler responds to a stressful situation depends on her temperament (mostly determined by her genes) and the relationships she has with others in her environment (usually her family or close carers).
Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through use. So your child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give him plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what he’s learning.
Relationships: how development happens
Children’s relationships affect all areas and stages of their development.
This is because relationships are experiences. In fact, relationships are the most important experiences in your child’s environment because they teach her the most about the world around her. In turn, they shape the way she sees the world.
Your child learns about the world both by being in a relationship – for example, when he communicates with you – and also by seeing relationships between other people – for example, how you behave towards your partner, and how your partner behaves towards you.
Through relationships, your child learns whether the world is safe and secure, whether she is loved, who loves her, what happens when she cries, laughs or makes a face – and much more. And this learning is the basis for your child’s communication, behaviour, social and other skills.
Your child’s most important relationships are with you, other family members and carers – for example, early childhood educators. These early relationships are the foundation for your child’s healthy development.
Why play is important
In the early years, your child’s main way of learning and developing is through play.
Play is fun for your child and gives him an opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and learn from his mistakes. He’ll need your support and encouragement to do this. But it’s important to try to find a balance between helping him and letting him make mistakes, because finding out for himself about how the world works is a big part of learning.
Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with you helps your child learn the skills she needs for life, like communicating, thinking, solving problems, moving and being with other people and children.
But more than this, play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. This message helps your child learn about who he is and where he fits in the world.
A loving, nurturing relationship helps you and your child learn a little more about each other every day. As your child grows and develops, her needs will change. You’ll learn more about what she needs and how you can meet these needs.
Other things that shape your child’s development
Other things such as nutrition, physical activity, health and the neighbourhood you live in also have a big impact on your child’s wellbeing and development.
You have some control over some of these things – such as what your child eats and how much activity he does – but you might have less control over others, such as health.
Healthy food gives your child the energy and nutrients she needs to grow and develop. It helps develop her sense of taste. And healthy family food and eating patterns in the early years can set up healthy eating habits for life.
Being physically active gets your child moving. It develops his motor skills, helps him think and gives him an opportunity to explore his world. So your child needs plenty of opportunities for active play, both inside and outside.
Your child’s health can influence her development. All children get sick at some point – for example, with coughs and colds, earaches or gastroenteritis. These minor childhood illnesses generally won’t cause any long-term problems with development.
But chronic or long-term health conditions like diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis or cancer can affect your child’s development. If your child has a chronic health condition, it’s a good idea to talk with your GP, child and family health nurse or other medical specialist (for example, a paediatrician) about how this might affect his development.
Neighbourhood and local community
Your neighbourhood and local community influence your child’s development. For example, your child’s development is supported by having positive relationships with teachers, participating in community activities (for example, a local school fete), and having access to things like playgrounds, parks, shops and local services like child care, schools, health centres and libraries.
But things like inadequate housing, poor-quality child care or unsafe playgrounds can compromise your child’s development.
Developing at different rates
Children grow and develop at different rates. Most skills and events happen in the same order, but the age they happen might vary for each child, even for children in the same family.
Some parents worry about when their child will walk, and others worry about why their child isn’t using the potty yet. Some might be concerned about when their baby will grow her first teeth.
It might help to remember that development is different for every child.
If you’re wondering about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might also help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. For example, the normal age range for children to start walking is 8-18 months. So if your child isn’t walking at 14 months, that’s OK.
Being a parent
As a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know and ask questions – often the ‘dumb’ questions are the best kind!
Your own physical and mental health is an important part of being a parent. But with all the focus on looking after a child or baby, lots of parents forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after yourself will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.
No matter what stage your child is at in his development, it’s never too late to start helping your child work on skills, master new challenges – and build a loving relationship with you.