Dr Kathryn Peckham is an early years expert and co-author of Birth to 5 Matters: the statutory Early Years Framework. She has recently collaborated on a new project, Parenting for Tomorrow, a National Lottery funded programme which aims to support military parents by nurturing play opportunities for early years children.
Why ‘play’ matters
Play is the foundation and language of childhood. When children play, they involve their whole body and mind in what are deeply rewarding activities. It is crucial for forming and maintaining friendships and establishing social skills for life. It is also how we learn best and is why children are compelled to do it, from the first moment they open their eyes.
As children engage in play that they structure themselves, they are explorers trying new things. Discovering not only the world, but also themselves as they learn about who they are and the things that they can do, some more successfully than others. It allows them to develop their social skills as they engage, learning to put forward opinions and take on board the opinions of others. It is not surprising that several studies have linked the amount of time children have for free play to happiness, high self-esteem and development of self-awareness.
When they play, children can also explore difficult, stressful or confusing events in their lives. Or things that are fascinating to them in ways that they can safely experience. This allows them to gain an understanding that they can manage as they learn to cope with the real issue. Common themes a child will explore through their play include getting lost and being found, being small and being powerful, facing danger and being rescued and dying and being reborn.
Military life and early years children
Our children need to feel a sense of security; within their environments and with the trusted adults around them. Although the military lifestyle can offer excitement and opportunity, this is not the first thing our young children are looking for. And they may struggle to manage with the inevitable instability and prolonged periods of parental absence; something I had first-hand experience of as a child.
For a military child who is experiencing changing environments and inconsistency in the loved ones around them, this sense of stability will not be coming in the usual ways. The early years of a child’s life, when they are making the key attachments with the important adults in their lives, is a particularly difficult time to be away from those you love.
Moving home can also be a stressful experience for young children. During our childhood, we can feel pretty powerless most of the time and moving home, school and friendship groups can shake the foundations of where you belong and where your roots are. With these early relationships forming the blueprint that all future relationships will be based upon, this needs some careful management.
Children often do not have the words or the comprehension to explain how they are feeling. That said, they have been communicating with you rather effectively since they were born. We just need to be open to listening. When their words are not readily available, children communicate through their body language, their behaviours and their reactions. Often responding automatically to deep rooted emotions that they have yet to understand.
If your child is struggling they may appear sullen or withdrawn. Alternatively, they may become particularly dramatic in their behaviours and responses. The trick here is to notice any changes in behaviour. You know your child better than anyone. So, if you are noticing changes in their behaviour that are causing you to worry, pay attention to the messages your child is sending you. No matter how quiet these messages may be.
While there may be little you can do to change your family’s circumstances, parents and caregivers of military children can support them in lots of different ways. Keep the lines of communication open and remember, children see and hear everything around them. So, while you may be anxious about a partner’s absence or a house move, it doesn’t help to try to hide this from your child. Instead, share your feelings with them. I’d also encourage parents and caregivers of young children to spend more time together as a family. While it may be tempting to join them up to every club, this can become overwhelming. Like anyone, your child needs time to get used to change. Likewise, don’t necessarily think that the solution to your problems is a product or book that has to be bought. Instead, nurturing your child’s imagination will allow them to have their own ideas and encourage independence and motivation, which will have a more lasting impact on their lifelong learning skills than any product you can buy online.
Parenting for Tomorrow
As parents we all want our children to develop in the best ways they can. That’s why I have teamed up with Army Education Officer, Major Nicole Walker, to help military families to create the most nurturing play opportunities for their child’s developing brains and lift the lid on what it means to be a child, growing and developing in today’s world.
Through our new project, Parenting for Tomorrow, military families receive a monthly Play Guide, covering a different aspect of early brain development and related play techniques. The feature is accessible and succinct, providing a manageable amount of crucial information which busy (and often transient) service families can readily absorb.
The Play Guide is also supported with a live webinar followed by a Q&A session in which subscribers can participate. All this can be accessed within the Village, a bespoke online community of fellow military families. For more information about Parenting for Tomorrow, visit www.parentingfortomorrow.org
Dr Peckham’s top tips for supporting young children
- Help your child to feel like they have a voice.
- Take time to hear what they are saying – whatever method of communication they use.
- Support their growing vocabulary by talking to them all the time.
- Switch off the screens and engage in the moment together.
- Offer them sensory rich experiences that you can explore together.
- Help them to feel safe and secure within your home and the routines you follow.
- If things feel crazy and fraught at times, take a close look at what you are doing. What are you prioritizing? Do you really need to be doing this? Now? In this way? And if it is all necessary, could you start earlier so you are not feeling rushed?