A child is constantly working on developing new skills when doing everyday activities. What to adults look like play activities, can be seriously hard work for a child trying to master a new skill. A child has to develop master the skills need to be able to walk, talk and be independent. Early development skills form the basis for successful entry into formal learning when they enter school.

Early development skills improve because of –

– the child's personal preference (just like adults, children prefer to choose activities we either like or are good at),
– the number of opportunities the child gets to practice their skill (in their play),
– how well the child can “join up” that skill, with other skills they are learning.

Just like a jigsaw puzzle, all development skills (eg talking, moving etc) need to be improved. Skills in one area must be combined with the other skill areas to make a “whole” base for a child to use to learn and develop. Children with very strong preferences for certain activities, or who only play in certain ways, can find it difficult to get the broad range of skills they need. They find it difficult to “join up” their strong skills and their weaker skills so that their skill level can be come “unbalanced.”

To help, parents can encourage new activities and less preferred activities to keep their child learning a wide variety of skills. When they join their child in play they can target the less preferred activities to offer support and demonstrate how their child can master these skills. For example for a child who prefers to drive their cars but avoids drawing activities, a parent could join in the car play but introduce drawing roads for the cars to drive on and assist their child to attempt to draw as well.

BUT Remember: Work, rest & play

Children need to work, rest and play – just like adults. But how they work, rest and play is different to adults. When children learn a new skill it could be considered their “work”. So in the work phase of learning a skill it takes a lot of effort and concentration. It can be pretty tiring and can not be sustained for too long. So the child drops back to playing using skills they have already mastered.

This repetitive “play” helps to make skills easier and easier (Think about the play very young children engage in saying the same word over and over as if seeking confirmation from you as the parent that while they are doing it right. adults sometimes – it is a fun game for the child – playing with their newly learnt word and making it easier and easier for them to say it).

Importantly, they also need to take a break from learning. How much rest they need can depend on how quickly they are trying to add new skills, or how hard skills are for them to master. When we say rest it is important to consider this includes non sleeping rest times. Again this may be where they lay quietly on the floor playing with a simple toy, or flop into a beanbag, or run wild around in circles – if only for a few minutes – they are resting in the form of not having to concentrate and getting ready to get back to work. They may need to rest often, but only briefly through the day; as well as having longer “sleeping” rest.

With their child needing to learn so many skills, a parent has many things to consider

– what skills should my child have or be working on?
– what does my child really like doing, and what do they avoid or do not give them as much time practicing?
– What chance do they get during their day to work or play at a new skill?
– How well does my child rest themselves and how do they do this?

What does this mean for your child?

Children need parents to “challenge” their current skill to get them to the next level – but not challenge them so much that they can not succeed at learning the skill.

Children need to be encouraged not only to play in activities that like, but to also “work” at activities that they do not enjoy as much. They may not play in a certain activity because the activity needs skills that are currently difficult for them. For example three year old Michael liked to climb but never played with blocks or jig saws. He was confident and skilled in his gross motor skills. When his parents helped him build towers with blocks, and cave him lots of praise he began to play with the barriers more frequently on his own. His fine motor skills gradually became as strong as his climbing skills.

Finally, children need lots of ways to rest – not just sleep. This includes quiet time, down time, and active time with no pressure (eg running around or laying on the floor with their favorite toys). This is a sign that they have been working hard to learn something new or practice something difficult. How often they need this “rest” time shows parents how hard they have been working at a new skill. Recognizing and encouraging appropriate rest activities ensures the child will then be ready to successfully work or play at more skills again.