Category Archives: Child Development

Social Skills After Quarantine

In 2021, as we are beginning to come out of the isolation of COVID-19, parents may feel a special urgency to make up for lost time on social development. Learning about developmentally normal stages of social development can help you to prioritize what support your child needs and how to help them make connections.

Making Up for Lost Time

Early childhood is prime time for learning social skills. For children that were socially isolated during those years due to coronavirus, parents may worry that their child’s social skills will be irreparably damaged. But children are so resilient – when social play opportunities open up, they’ll catch up!

First, remember – your child has been practicing social skills! Even if it was just one child and one adult living together, there was plenty of opportunity to practice talking and listening, taking turns, playing together, and conflict resolution. (If there were additional people or animals in the mix, even better.) If you want to evaluate whether they’re on track with social skills, check out this checklist of play skills (or this one) that children typically develop at each age – you may discover they are right where they should be developmentally. If they haven’t yet mastered some of the typical skills, the checklist will give you a sense of what to work on.

Learn what’s normal / what’s next:

It’s helpful to know what we’d typically expect at each age for children so as they start to play together, you can watch for these skills. It’s also helpful to know what’s next in typical development, so you can foster opportunities for learning.

Infants – if your baby was home with only you during the first few months, that’s fine! A young baby can get all the social cues and interaction they need from just one or two caring adults. Just practice serve-and-return interactions, where your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Your baby coos and you coo back. (Learn more.) And learn about infant cues to guide your responses. If your baby has the opportunity to interact with additional adults or older children, they will likely happily engage with anyone.

Older Babies. From 6 – 12 months, your baby learns to play more interactively with you and will likely enjoy peek-a-boo, copying your actions, clapping with you, passing toys back and forth, and finding toys you have hidden. Some babies may play happily with all they encounter. However, it is important to know that even in normal times, many infants develop a fear of strangers at around 7 to 8 months, so interacting with other people in person prior to that may help to reduce that. If you’re just introducing your child to other people at this age, reassure yourself that stranger fear is developmentally normal, not just a product of coronavirus quarantine… they will outgrow it just as all babies have always outgrown it. Here are tips on reducing separation anxiety. And more tips.)

Young Toddlers – up to 2 years. Before 18 – 24 months, children primarily engage in solitary play, where they engage with toys, but often appear uninterested or unaware of other children. So, if your child was in isolation during this period, don’t worry about it! If you bring them back into connection with other kids during this period, know that it’s normal for them to not really engage much. They do engage with adults or older children more effectively than they do with peers, so if you’re choosing only one COVID playmate to help build your toddler’s social skills, 71 year old grandma or 17 year old babysitter may be as good a match as a 17 month old buddy. To build social skills, try Floortime play, which begins with child-led play, then “stretches” the play to be more interactive and turn-taking.

Onlookers: Around 2 years old, they begin to shift to spectator play, where they may begin observing other children more. This is a great time to take them to public parks where they can watch other children at play, up close or from afar.

Older Toddlers – 2+ years. Children begin to engage in parallel play. They will play next to each other, often mimicking what the other child is doing. They may not often engage in reciprocal back-and-forth play with a peer, but they are learning from each other. If your child was isolated during this stage, they almost certainly did parallel play with you. If you’re re-integrating them into social play at this age, they can do fine one-on-one or in groups, with familiar kids or with children they’ve just met.

“Stealing” toys is very common at this age. They are not intentionally trying to deprive the other child of something… it’s just that they noticed what the other child was doing and they want to do it now. One of the most effective ways to handle this issue is distraction – let the child who seems more focused on the contested toy keep it, and distract the other child with a new toy. That will work better, and is more developmentally appropriate than telling children to share.

Three Year Olds. Around age 3, children begin to do more associate play. They start to interact more with each other, trading toys, copying each other, or “inviting” the other child to participate in what they are doing. They become more interested in the other child than in the toy. They may work together on a goal – like building with blocks, but there aren’t usually “rules” to the game. They can learn social skills by playing with adults or with older children, but it’s great if they can have peer interaction at this age. It does not have to be in a large group pre-school. One-on-one or a few children at a time is fine. It may be tempting to enroll in classes as your primary place to connect with other kids, but if your main goal is social skills, it is easier for children to learn those in settings that allow lots of free play (a playground, playdates with other families, a play-based preschool, or a family size child care setting) than in a structured class (like a gymnastics or soccer class where the teacher is trying to keep them on task.)

Check out the “skills to practice at home” section below.

Four and Five Year Olds. At this age, they have moved into true cooperative play. They share toys, they share ideas, they create “rules” or agree on which role each one will play in a pretend game, and work together toward goals. They start learning more about cooperation, compromise, and fair turn-taking. Whereas at younger ages, it’s fine to have your child play with lots of different kids, this is an important age for children to have a few consistent buddies to play with repeatedly, to build friendship skills. If they are enrolled in a group setting, like preschool or extracurricular classes, look for children there that they most connect with, and try setting up playdates with that family to give them more opportunity to connect. Or, if you’re still limiting exposures to other kids, find just one to three families for a low COVID risk playgroup. Check out “skills to practice at home” below, and my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.”

Reducing Coronavirus Risk

Every parent has to make their own calculations, but here are some things to consider.

  • If the number of vaccinated people in your community is high, and the number of current cases are low, there is less risk of community transmission than when there are fewer vaccinated folks and case numbers are growing.
  • The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings is lower. The risk at indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings is higher.
  • If the parents at the playdate are vaccinated and wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • If children (over age 2) wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • Fewer people involved means fewer exposure risks.
  • You can plan activities that make it easier for children to stay distanced, or provide supports to help them remember to be distanced (like hula hoops or sit-upons to mark places to sit.) Teach them to wave hello rather than hugging or high fiving. Have them wash hands before and after play. Save snacks for after the gathering.

Skills to Practice at Home

You can boost their social skills by practicing in advance of playdates. Do lots of pretend play, puppet shows and role plays, and talk about the social and emotional experiences of characters in stories that you are reading.

When teaching about emotions, I have always taught children to recognize how facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate emotion, but especially when masks cover up much of our facial expressions, the other non-verbal cues are especially important to teach.

Practice give-and-take conversations, where you take turns fairly, don’t interrupt each other, and ask the other person questions about what they said rather than always just telling them things. Role model social skills by how you interact with friends, family and people in the community.

Introduce the ideas of taking turns. Play side by side with your child, and occasionally ask: ‘can I play with that toy now?’ Or say ‘you can have that toy for one more minute and then it’s my turn.’ If they try to take a toy from you, say ‘I’m playing with it now. You can have it in a minute. Here’s another toy you can play with now.’ Don’t expect 2 – 3 year olds to be good at sharing and taking turns! It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and they just have to reach a stage of development where they can empathize with another child’s feelings. But practicing at home gives them a chance to build trust in the idea that if they let you have your turn that you will give it back when it’s their turn.

If your child seems shy or withdrawn, don’t assume it’s because of COVID. It could just be their natural temperament. Just search online for tips to help with a shy or introverted child, or what I like to call a “slow-to-warm-up” child. Some simple ways to help them are: get together in smaller groups in quiet, not chaotic environments; arrive before the other child(ren) to get settled; sit on the ground and let your child sit on your lap till they feel ready to venture out. Don’t push.

Learn more in my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.” Also check out “Making Up for Lost Time” from Bright Horizons, and my tips for Successful Playdates.

Choosing the Best School / Preschool

On a regular basis, I see posts on social media from parents asking for advice on choosing “the best” preschool, or the best private school in the area, or asking which is the best public school as they plan a move. (And, of course, parents of older children agonize over what is the best college.)

There truly is not a “best” school. There are LOTS of great schools, and some mediocre ones, and a very few bad ones. What’s best is the school that best meets your family’s unique needs and goals, and best suits your child’s unique learning style.

Here are some steps to take to figuring out YOUR best option:

Step 1 – Needs Assessment

Before you bother researching all the options, and before you fall in love with an option that won’t meet your needs, let’s start with the pure nitty gritty essentials:

  • Schedule: Are you looking for full-time or part-time, or are you flexible? If the regular school day isn’t long enough, do they offer extended day care? What days do you need? What wouldn’t work?
  • What times could work for you and what just doesn’t work? (e.g. if you’re not a morning person, choosing an early morning program may not be a realistic bet)
  • Location: really think through the commute and whether it will work – I can’t tell you how many parents have chosen what they thought was a great school, but by October were miserable about having a cranky kid in the car in never-ending traffic)
  • Cost: there is a wide range in costs – be realistic about what’s affordable for you. If you stretch your budget, then it can make any little frustration with the school really stressful as you think – “I can’t believe we’re paying this much and this is happening!”
  • Drop-off or stay? For younger children, there are often parent-child options where you always stay, or co-ops that are drop off some days and have you work in the classroom on other days. These are generally cheaper than drop-off programs and also allow you to be closely involved in your child’s education.

Step 2 – Goal Setting

What do you hope your child will get out of the experience? Are you hoping for academic development? Social-emotional skill building? Art? Music? Physical education? Science? Religious education?

Are there things that you know you could do a great job of teaching your kids? Then you may not need the school to cover that well. Is there something you think you won’t be good at teaching? Choose a school that does it well.

Do you prefer a very structured teacher-led program? Or more of a play-based or inquiry-based program where the teacher works the lesson plans around the children’s interests? How do you feel about homework – are you happy to guide practice time at home for them to improve on their skills? Or would you like out of school time to be free choice for your family?

Is the school’s approach to learning compatible with yours? When our oldest was little, we looked at one school which discouraged use of technology and screens, and actually discouraged reading before age 7, instead focusing on things like oral story-telling. This did not work for our tech-heavy family and also didn’t make sense because my kids all learn to read by age 3 or 4. (Not because we drill them… but because we love books so much in our family that they couldn’t wait to read themselves.) We looked at another school where there were only non-fiction books on the shelf in the kindergarten classroom, and I asked “where are the story books?” They disdainfully said “they have plenty of time for that sort of reading at home…” I knew that wasn’t the school for us!

Take a good look at your child’s temperament and learning style. I had a very social chatty child, and we looked at one school where the children were expected to work quietly and independently and not chat with each other. Not a good match for that child. I had a high energy child who tended to get overstimulated in indoor classrooms, but stayed calm and happy outdoors, so we sent him to outdoor preschool. You want to choose a school where your child will feel competent and valued, not one where they never fit in.

During goal setting, it’s also worth asking: What do you hope to get out of their school experience? Some preschools and schools offer parent education and support. Some actively work to encourage community building amongst families. Cooperative preschools and home school coops are the ultimate example of involving parents in school in meaningful ways. On the other hand, some parents may prefer to outsource school, and have a pretty hands-off approach, and there are certainly schools that will also support that.

Step 3 – Learn about Your Options

OK, now it’s time to turn to the internet and social media.

In Facebook groups for parents, you probably don’t even need to ask a question – you can typically search the archives for preschool or school, because probably 50 people before you have asked “what’s the best school” and you can just read through all those answers!

You can look at Yelp and Google reviews and such – but, as always with reviews, you’ll see a lot of 5 stars and a lot of 1 stars and nothing in between. People only bother to write reviews when they’re really happy or really mad. So, reviews never tell the whole story. But, they can give you some hints of what to watch for.

Look for directories, and look for school fairs and preschool fairs, or special issues of local parenting magazines. For example, in the Seattle area, for preschools, you’ll find the directory for the ParentMap preschool fair and the preschool night at Lake WA Toddler Group. For private schools, here is the directory for NW Association of Independent Schools and Puget Sound Independent Schools. Search online for ratings of local public schools.

Once you’ve got the names of schools, it’s easy to do lots of internet research on them. Check out their websites. Don’t just read the words, but also look for what’s NOT said. (For example, in my experience, if they don’t tell you the tuition up front, it’s probably high.) Look for what the pictures show, and what’s missing in the pictures. (For example, many schools try to portray diversity in their photographs to let folks know that everyone is welcome, but I’ve been involved in schools where we didn’t yet have a lot of racial diversity, and so we had the same few kids appearing over and over in several photos. I believe that we were welcoming, but when BIPOC kids came, there would not yet be many peers for them.)

Look at ads. But note: you may see a ton of ads for one school that make you think they’re great, but it could just be a big school with a big marketing budget (and likely high tuition to support that). Some really great small schools never run ads, because they’re trying to keep costs low to increase accessibility for families. They count on word of mouth – current and alumni families who had great experiences and tell their friends and family.

So, that leads to your best source of options: word of mouth. Ask friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, parents at the park! If you ask on social media, instead of just saying “what’s a great school”, say “we’re looking for a part-time, play-based, affordable preschool – what do you recommend?” Or whatever other criteria you want to state. That makes sure the recommendations you get are relevant to you.

Step 4 – Questions to Research

What do they teach? What would your child learn there?

What is the daily schedule? How is time divided between activities? Play time? Quiet time? Outdoors? Snack? Young children have short attention spans for structured activity, so it’s best in short doses, with plenty of unstructured time in between to explore and discover, and quiet time to process what they’ve learned.

How do they teach it?

A couple big picture ideas: A teacher-led curriculum means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (and may use a standardized curriculum) and sticks to them. A child-led curriculum (a.k.a. emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests and adapts to what the children want to do.

A structured class might use group time, worksheets, and formal instruction to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. A play-based class typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations, and asking questions to further the learning.

Who are the students?

  • How many students? How many teachers? The number of kids matters as much as student to teacher ratio. A 8 student class with 1 teacher (8:1 ratio) feels very different from a 16 student class with 2 teachers (8:1). And a 24 kid class is really different from a 6 kid class no matter the ratios.
  • What is the age range of the class? Some parents prefer that all the kids be as close as possible in age, but many programs tout the benefits of multi-age classrooms. The oldest kids have a chance to lead and mentor, and the younger ones benefit by the presence of an older role model.
  • What are the cut-off dates for age? Your child will do best when they’re in the middle of the recommended age range. If your child is a fall baby (born in September or October), I do NOT recommend trying to push them ahead… if they’re the youngest child in their class, they’ll always feel small, slow, and socially behind, even if they can keep up academically. Let them be the oldest – it’s a confidence booster. If they need more academic challenge than their classmates, most teachers are happy to give extra challenges to kids who can handle it.

Who are the teachers?

  • Training and experience: Where and how did they learn the content that they are teaching in the class? Where did they learn about how to teach? Do they participate in continuing education?
  • Longevity / turnover. As a general rule, the longer the teachers have been there the better. (Unless you get the sense that they’re burned out and only there due to inertia….)
  • Do they enjoy kids? Do they sit on the floor with the kids, smile, and engage with them? Or are they standing on the edges talking to other adults, occasionally calling out instructions to a child?
  • How do they handle discipline?What are their rules and how do they reinforce them?

What is the learning environment like?

  • Is the environment clean? Safe?
  • Is there a wide range of materials and supplies? Are materials in good condition?
  • Vibe:  The most important thing you’re “looking” for is something you can’t see. How does it feel? Is it warm, nurturing, full of exciting learning experiences, and full of happy children and teachers? Or is it cold, institutional, uninvolved?

What is the parent experience?

OK, now it’s time to go back to social media with specific questions: “We’re trying to decide between X School and Y School. We’d love to connect to parents who have recent experience with them – we’re especially curious about _____.”

Step 5 – Go With Your Gut

We know from the science of brain development that children learn best when they feel safe and are happy, so look for a place where they will be happy and engaged. Look for a place where you would feel great every time you drop them off to spend time there. Our family has been lucky to participate in some schools where I just felt blessed to have found that environment for my child.

So, all the steps above are logical and focus on practical evaluations. But I think this final decision point often comes down to what feels right to you? That’s the best school.

Learn more:

Teaching Problem-Solving to Children

On developmental screenings, the categories of development are communication, gross motor, fine motor, personal/social and problem-solving. I think many parents feel like they have ideas on how to teach the other categories, but aren’t sure how to get started on teaching problem-solving. The best way to learn anything is by doing, so one of the best ways to teach problem-solving is to let your child have problems.

When challenges arise for your child, don’t always leap to their rescue. Sometimes it’s best to sit back for a few minutes to see if they can figure it out on their own. If your child is a little cranky and frustrated about a problem, that’s OK. Frustration can push us forward till we have a break-through to a solution. (Note: However, if frustration is turning into misery, that’s no longer helpful, so step in BEFORE that switches over to meltdown. Or, if they’ve totally flipped their lid and it’s too late to help with problem solving, then check out these tips for managing a meltdown. AFTER they’re calm, you can go back to solving the problem.)

If your child is still fairly calm, but needs some support with a problem, don’t just jump in and fix it for them. They won’t learn anything from that. (And we all know from tech support how frustrating it is when we’ve struggled and struggled with an issue, and someone else steps in, presses a button and fixes it. We’re glad it’s fixed, but we may also feel embarrassed and feel incompetent at fixing future challenges.) Instead, help guide them to finding a solution.

Here are some steps to walk through.

Step One – Define the Problem

Clarify what is the problem they’re trying to solve? Start off with a little empathy, and listening to their concerns. “Hey buddy, you seem really frustrated. What are you trying to do right now?”

Sometimes they can tell you exactly the problem (“I can’t find the puzzle piece!”) and it’s something you can see several clear solutions to. Sometimes they tell you a problem that you can see is unsolvable (“I want the broken glass to be unbroken”) – you may need to help them re-frame this into a problem that is solvable. Sometimes they’re not even certain what’s wrong – sometimes they’re just having a rough day and just need a cuddle.

And… honestly, sometimes you have to re-define what the problem is. They may say “the problem is that Bobby has the toy and I need to make him give it to me.” You might change the problem definition: “I know you want that toy Bobby has… since you can’t have it right now, let’s think about what else you could do.”

Step Two – Brainstorm Solutions

If you’ve got a child who is five or older, they may be able to come up with lots of possible solutions with just a little guidance. After your child has some brainstormed options, you can help them figure out if those solutions are a) actually possible now, and b) if they would actually solve the problem. Sometimes you can defuse the tension around problem-solving by suggesting some crazy wacky solutions that make them laugh.

For a 3 – 5 year old, you could help them build a repertoire of possible solutions in advance so they have ideas to draw from. For example, if you’re working on challenges playing nicely with other children, you could offer a solution kit like the ones from Headstart, or Center on Social and Emotional Foundations. You could teach these as part of a curriculum, then when the child is having challenges, you pull the cards out and ask them which tools might be helpful at that moment.

If your child is 2, you won’t really ask them to brainstorm. They won’t be good at this kind of abstract thinking. You’ll likely have to just suggest 2 – 3 options to them as choices they could make.

Step 3 – Try Out a Solution

I teach an engineering class for kids. We talk a lot about tinkering – trying out different ideas, and tweaking – making minor adjustments, then testing to see if it’s better. That applies to any kind of problem solving for kids. Sometimes the first solution works perfectly to solve the problem. Sometimes it “almost” works and we just need to tweak it a little. Sometimes it fails completely and you need to start all over again.

Once you’ve got a couple brainstormed options, help the child plan for what they’ll try first, and then what they’ll do next if the first idea doesn’t work. (Sometimes the best thing to tell them to do next is to come back and check in with you for new ideas.)

Although you don’t have to jump in every time to help a child problem-solve, it is good to keep an eye and ear on them when they’re testing out solutions. My child once set down a stick he was playing with, and another child picked it up. My son tried to use his words and his manners to get it back. He asked nicely for the stick – once, twice, three times… When saying please didn’t work, he gave up. And tried out biting!

Step 4 – Reflection

If your child solves a problem, give them lots of praise and positive attention. Don’t just praise the result (the solved problem) but also praise the process: “you worked really hard to come up with a solution!”

If they tried, but failed, still give positive attention: “I really like that you came up with some ideas and tested them out. I’m sorry it didn’t work – sometimes problems are just really tricky to solve.”

At bedtime that night, or some other time, reflect back on lessons learned. Keep it positive, and use a growth mindset approach – “you haven’t figured it out YET, but if you keep trying, I know we’ll get there.”

When / How to Teach Skills

You can certainly teach problem-solving skills in the moment when problems arise. (But remember – timing matters! Don’t intervene too soon or they’ll never know if they could have solved it on their own. Don’t wait too long until they’re in meltdown or until they’re making bad choices you’ll have to impose consequences for.)

You can also build a repertoire of skills they can apply when needed:

Whenever we’re teaching any challenging skills, whether that’s cutting with scissors, putting a puzzle together, riding a bike, throwing a basket, and so on, we can teach skills they may need to solve problems in the future. You can also teach when playing side-by-side with them. For example, you could build a tower that’s really shaky and ask them for ideas for how to make it stronger, then model for them some ideas you have. You could accidentally mix up two paint colors by putting the wrong brush in a cup, then talk with them about possible solutions. You’re giving them tools they can use for future problem-solving, and also modeling how to stay calm in the face of challenges.

You can use dramatic play to teach: puppet shows and role plays. When reading books, if a problem comes up, pause your reading and ask them: what’s the problem? what are some possible solutions? what do you think the character will try?

Our goals with teaching problem-solving are to build independence, to build good decision-making skills (though remember, due to the stages of brain development, consistently good judgment and decision-making skills may not arise till their late teens!), and to create flexible thinkers (fluid intelligence) who can respond to a wide variety of life circumstances with resilience.

Resource for Learning More

The Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center has a great webinar for Head Start teachers, which is also helpful for parents, called: “It’s a Big Problem: Teaching Children Problem-Solving Skills.” It’s a video, or you can read the transcript if you prefer, and also be sure to check out the additional resources page they link to for follow-up.

They have helpful suggestions. Like when defining a problem, you can ask the child whether it’s a mouse sized problem they can solve or an elephant size problem they need help solving. For older children (age 4 and up), you could ask them to evaluate possible solutions by asking themselves these questions: Would it be safe? Would it be fair? How would everyone feel?

If you like acronyms to remember an idea, try this one: STEP = State the problem, Think of multiple solutions, Explore the pros and cons, and Pick a solution to try.

Keys to Brain Development

In the first five years of life, a child’s brain grows from 25% the size of an adult’s brain at birth to 92% the size of an adult’s brain. All that growth comes from making connections – connections built through hands-on, multi-sensory experiences of their world. There are several ways parents can support their children’s growth and development. This video gives a quick summary, and I’ll give more details below.

Novelty – New Experiences

The parent can provide a diverse array of new experiences. These don’t have to be fancy, they don’t have to be expensive, they don’t have to be based on advanced scientific research. These are just the everyday experiences of life. Just simple activities like going for a walk, looking at the clouds, stomping in puddles, touching a slug, coming home and making hot chocolate together, snuggling up on the couch with a good book, playing with blocks, then drawing pictures. Any new experience builds connections in a child’s brain.

And if you don’t have the energy to think of something new to do, try putting together two familiar things in a new way, and see what your child does differently. For example, take the rubber duckies from the bathtub and put them with the Duplos, or take the colander from the kitchen to the bathtub. Your child will be delighted by the new possibilities. Learn more about “invitations to play.”

I have a whole collection of easy free activities with toddlers to get you inspired. (Not all are do-able in the coronavirus era, but most are.) Everything from “nature shopping” to “counting cars”, from “construction theater” to year-round egg hunts.

I want to encourage my child’s growth in all diverse knowledge and skills. I find it helpful to think about categories of development – have we done anything today to build large motor skills? What about fine motor skills? I also find the theory of multiple intelligences to be a helpful guide to inspiring new ideas – have we tried out any music today? And spatial challenges? Here’s an article I wrote on choosing toys and activities for toddlers that build multiple intelligences.

I do encourage you to offer your child lots of learning opportunities, but please don’t feel like you have to be doing a non-stop song and dance, tossing new things into the ring continuously. That would be exhausting for you! But it could also teach your child that the only way to be happy is to be continually entertained with new things. They would also be missing out on the full depth of possible learning if you did this and ignored the next two keys to brain development: repetition and down time.

Repetition – Doing it Again and Again Builds Mastery

Doing something for the first time makes a connection. Doing it again strengthens that connection. Doing it again in a different setting strengthens that connection and also makes connections to this new setting. Combining that activity with another deepens understanding. Think of a child learning to walk – they fall again and again until the a-ha moment happens. But then they still stumble and wobble along for a while. But the more they walk, the better they get at it. Or think of anyone learning an instrument – we don’t become expert by going to a class once a week. To become a skilled musician requires playing those same scales again and again till you reach mastery.

Don’t rush them. If they’re just barely starting to understand something and you push them onward, they’ll have a shaky foundation for future learning. For example, if you have a child who has just barely learned to count to three, don’t feel like you have to rush them on to 4, 5, 6… 10… 100. Let them stay at three for a while – really exploring three, getting to the point where they can tell at a glance if they have three objects or more than that or less than that. If you can do this, your child will have such a solid understanding of the fundamentals of math, everything later on will make more sense.

When my oldest kids were little, I probably over-did the novelty. I felt like I continuously had to provide new experiences. My oldest child resisted transitions so much, and looking back, I think a big part of it was that he was always feeling forced to move on before he was ready. By the time my third child came along, I had learned a lot about the importance of repetition for brain development, so I was willing to let him do things again and again. It’s a good thing, because that little boy has deep passions and wants to immerse himself in the same things for weeks or months on end.

But with him, I saw clear evidence of everything the research says about repetition and also about following a child’s interests. When he was wild about dinosaurs, we could teach everything else he needed to learn in that context – we could teaching counting, and colors, and music and art, all focused on dinosaurs. When he had the chance to do something again and again, he developed so much self-esteem in seeing himself as a competent learner. Whenever he was feeling anxious about anything else, returning to this familiar territory helped get him grounded and feeling capable, then he could take on new challenges.

There is a concept called Schemas of Play, which addresses how children tend to be working on a few key ideas at any given time. They might be exploring: Trajectory – kicking and throwing balls, or Transportation – carrying things everywhere, or Connecting – assembling puzzles. They may repeat the same activity over and over, but know that they are learning important concepts by doing that. Check out some ways to support your child’s schemas of play.

Down Time – to Process it All

Children need rest. It is during sleep that we build myelin sheaths that insulate our nerve pathways, helping us access information more quickly and efficiently apply that knowledge to new situations. (Nutrition is also important. To build myelin, they also need a diet with plenty of healthy fats, like fish oils, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and whole milk. Learn more about nutrition for growing brains.)

They need down time – time to putter around the house “doing nothing.” Time to play aimlessly. Time to “waste time.” When they don’t appear to be doing anything, it may be because they are processing all the new learning they’ve been experiencing, and they need time to take it all in and incorporate it.

Don’t feel like you have to constantly entertain your child. When they are “bored” is when they may come up with some of their most creative ideas. They might make connections between things on their own. I remember once my daughter, who was 5 at the time, was complaining about how bored she was. I told her “I need to finish this work… figure out what to do for 15 minutes, OK?” My work took longer than expected, and when I went to find her 45 minutes later, she had all the toy horses arrayed on the table, and proceeded to tell me all their names, ranks and how they were related: “Princess Snowy is getting married to Duke Blaze – he is from a different kingdom where his sister… ” She’d created this whole complex imaginary play world, which she would never have done if I was hovering over her guiding her play.

I think it can feel tricky to find the right balance between feeling like we should introduce novelty and guide learning and knowing when to step back and let them explore on their own. It could be something as simple as having a bedtime story routine – each night, we read two stories – one for novelty, one for repetition, and then I let my child look at books on her own for a few minutes before turning off the light. (Here’s more about choosing books for your child.)

Read this article on How Much is Enough, How Much is Too Much which looks at questions like how many toys to buy, how many activities to schedule, and how screen time fits in.

Check out my past writing on brain development, which includes more about the science of brain development.