How encourage my child to talk? How can I teach my child to read? What can I do to help my child make friends? What is the best way to prepare my child for school?
These are some of the most important questions we have as a new parent. We all want to give our children the best start in life that we can and the early years before school starts are crucial as we lay the building blocks to enable them to progress through their first years at school, negotiate the sometimes fraught and tricky teenage years and then allow them to grow into confident, well rounded adults.
Whilst every child is different and should be allowed the freedom to develop at their own pace, there are steps we can take to help this development along.
Communication skills are the first things your little one will learn, and they will learn this from you. Talking to your toddler, reading with them, singing songs and nursery rhymes telling stories, all help them to store words in their memory. Concentrate on what they are trying to tell you rather then the clarity of the words they are using and show delight and approval and repeat what they are saying back to them to reaffirm the word and give them confidence. Ask for their help by asking them to pass you things, like ‘put their cup on the table or bring you their shoe. If they say car, expand on that with yes, big red car! Engage them in conversation with your family and friends and take part in their pretend play. Whilst it is a temptation to sit them in front of the TV for short periods, it is recommended that this should be limited to just one hour per day.
A baby/toddler who grows up with regular reading aloud everyday, who associates reading as fun and a pleasure, will start to read as a natural progression in life rather than having to be taught in a formal classroom environment. Reading together at bedtime is joyful for your child and encompasses loving cuddles, language, thinking, feeling, bonding, creativity and expression all in the one uncomplicated act of story telling. Don’t believe that your child has to speak before they can read, children have to think in a word before they can speak so will build quite a vocabulary before they can express themselves verbally. Enjoy snuggling up and entering their magical world whether it is a world of dinosaurs, princesses, pirates or imaginary creatures. It is good news to hear that after all the gloomy headlines stating that tablets would see the printed book disappear; sales of children’s books have risen by a massive 16%. This year is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland and sales of Enid Blyton books - who can forget the wonderful Faraway Tree series - continue to be strong even though she began her writing career nearly 100 years ago. Be prepared to ready aloud your child’s favourite story many times over, they will treasure these memories as they grow into adults and have children of their own.
As parents we are role models and how you relate to your friends will influence their own interactions with other children. Start slowly and gently, perhaps inviting another Mum with her toddler to your home for a play date. Some children do not enjoy mixing in large groups so one or two friends at a time will be fine. Plan several activities and make sure you have enough toys/dress up clothes/paper and crayons for everyone so they are not forced into sharing before they are ready. Try and plan it so it happens at a time of day when your little one is normally in a good mood. Be prepared to sit in with them at their level and show and encourage them in shared play. Don’t be concerned if they appear to want to play alongside each other without communicating this is quite normal for a two year old. Another idea might be to introduce them to a potential friend in a play park where there are lots of different options like slides or swings. Perhaps at nursery there is another child who enjoys playing with the same interests who might be ideal. The important things is to not fret about the whole friendship thing, allow it to happen naturally with encouragement and just let it materialise, they will soon realise that playing with a friend is much more fun than on your own.
Our anxiety about starting school shouldn't be transferred to the child. The more relaxed you are about the whole thing they will be too. Are there any older children they can talk to about what to expect, the good things of course! Make them familiar with the school with a visit or two, show them in advance where the loos are and reassure them about things like lunch and who to go to if they have any problems or are worried about anything. Their teacher might make a home visit, all they will expect is a cup of tea and perhaps a biscuit – no need to go into Mary Berry mode making a cake to impress, the main reason for the visit is to get to know your child before they start the new term. If they can make a connection with their new teacher then there is nothing better. Don’t worry too much about their ability to read and write or count - that is the teacher’s job. More important will be their practical skills, like are they able to go to the loo by themselves, put on their shoes, are they able to sit quietly and concentrate for an hour or so at a time, can they find their peg and put on their coat? Whilst it is hard sometimes to see your little one start full time school, if you look upon it as a welcome adventure your child will too.