Every child deserves to have the best start possible especially in the first five years. They have always deserved this and it’s a little sad that it took Australia a long time to recognise this formally. The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) that is now being rolled out for every educator who works with children under 5 is designed to ensure that theory becomes a reality. Let’s celebrate the noble intentions of this initiative and remember raising healthy, happy children is not government-driven work, it’s a sacred calling.
Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she designed children! Being healthy means that at times children will need to get dirty; they will post things into your video or DVD player being Postman Pat; they will be fascinated by pouring water, juice or milk from a great height; they will pull up your plants to check out the roots and they will paint their teddy all of this is fascinating vital and essential learning that keeps their seeking mechanism alive and strong.
Not only will this help them learn more, a healthy seeking mechanism in adults helps us avoid getting into ruts that can become graves. By this I mean that an under-developed seeking mechanism in adulthood can mean you are more susceptible to depression, low motivation and the possibility of staying in a lousy job or loveless relationship. So this child-like curiosity when nurtured as a child will build physical, psychological, emotional and social competences that will then build resilience and self-esteem. Children are not naughty or bad when they unravel the toilet roll and shove it down the bowl! Nor when they make Mummy breakfast using things they find in the pantry cereal, tomato sauce, flour, pasta tubes, cocoa, yoghurt and maybe a bit of Nutella all stirred up together! The same goes when children get unhappy when they find someone else has the bike they want, the doll they want or the puzzle they like and they cry, push or pull in a way that looks unkind. They are simply children with immature emotional and social capacity to process experiences they are not bad.
Remember, real kids need dirt, trees, water, real people, pets and real life experiences to grow healthy, happy and strong. Little things like getting dirty, wet, and making a mess in the play room are exactly what they need to do to learn the intricate patterns and nuances of life. Being able to help clean up the messes they make is also a helpful life skill too so make sure you get your children involved deeply in cleaning.
The five learning outcomes for the EYLF embrace what children need biologically and because the EYLF is strongly play-based we can relax that we are all on the same road to health and wellbeing for all children.
1. Children have a strong sense of identity.
2. Children are connected with and contribute to their world.
3. Children have a strong sense of wellbeing.
4. Children are confident and involved learners.
5. Children are effective communicators.
The serious business of play
We know that children are wired biologically to play and play is very serious business for children. I believe they are wired to do everything that is needed to develop their brains, their hearts and their bodies. Have you noticed how children love to spin with their arms out or maybe roll down hills? They know at some deep level that spinning is very good for their brains to grow a healthy cerebellum which is a sensory processing part of the brain. Studies indicate 75% of children with ADHD and dyslexia have under-developed cerebellums. The other things that help grow great cerebellums are balancing, tumbling and rolling.
I think children know about the KISS approach to life (keeping it simple). To toddlers there is enormous learning to be found in a basket of clothes pegs, some cellophane or the plastics cupboard. As learning requires several experiences to actually create the neuronal connections to develop, it will look as boring as the proverbial bat poo to an adult! However, to a toddler stimulating, interesting and vital brain growth is occurring without the child experiencing stress from being over-stimulated or overly adult directed. It is helpful to remember that the human brain is wired to learn, to explore the hidden patterns of the world while learning how to be a social being. They need REAL people to learn how to be a social being not virtual ones! There are serious developmental benefits that children learn by being able to manage their own worlds, including the risks they encounter. Some child experts claim that children can build their character and personality through facing up to adverse circumstances where they know there is a possibility of injury or loss. They can learn the qualities of being adventurous and entrepreneurial at the same time. Overcoming challenging situations is a key aspect of resilience and there is only one way to learn this and that is through experience. This is a beautiful example of how children learn to manage the bumps and bruises of life because they had opportunities to manage the bumps and bruises of life they were not molly coddled and wrapped in cotton wool! Accidents were seen as a part of a healthy childhood not a sign of poor parenting. Resilience is built from experiences of managing the things that can hurt physically, emotionally and psychologically.
An appetite for life
Margot Sunderland in her excellent book The Science of Parenting writes about the importance of developing the mammalian brain, especially the areas of caring and nurturing, social bonding, playfulness and the explorative urge (p19). This last development, also called the seeking system, is like a muscle the more you use it, the more it develops. In humans this system can activate an appetite for life, an energy to explore the new and an eagerness to seek out the fruits of the world (p 94). It also stimulates curiosity, absorbed interest and sustained motivation to achieve our goals. This is what free play and child-centred activity helps to nurture in a child’s brain. Maybe the mind-numbing influence of TV and play within adult-centred worlds is crushing this vital brain development that then makes an individual susceptible to mental illness like depression and poor life motivation. As I said, an under active seeking system in adulthood could contribute to a person having low resilience by staying stuck in an unloving relationship or a completely soulless boring job. They will simply lack that magical drive to transform the seed of disillusionment into a new adventure or amazing new reality.
The explorative urge embraces every one of the outcomes embedded within the EYLF. To help the seeking mechanism to develop well, ensure that young children (I would also argue older children and even adolescents) have lots of opportunity to be able to move things around and adapt the way they play according to their amazing imaginations. That is why cardboard boxes, sheets, plastic containers, blocks of wood and of course dolls, teddy bears, toy characters, trains, diggers, cars and even sometimes pets make for some very interesting play opportunities for children. Things that numb the brain include the virtual world, toys that only work one way, gadgets that require constant finger control and also too much visual entertainment. The vital interaction between child and the natural world develops sensory development and a primary connection between child and nature. Children are meant to absorb themselves in as many sensory explorations as possible even though we would prefer they skip the poo painting! This is not only vital for them to understand the differences of textures, sensations of temperature one study I read suggests a strong link between sensory motor development and logical thinking. This means there are links between the motor cortex and the reasoning parts of the frontal lobes movement stimulates creativity. So being a couch potato as a young child may mean that a child will not necessarily reach their full potential as a thinking adult. Sand pits are still great for kids!
Hopefully the EYLF will affirm what has always been important for children it needs to be more about children than adults, play based, follow the KISS principle and embrace that childhood is sacred and we need moments of pain and fun in order to grow happy, healthy, resilient children.