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Child development: the first five years

In the first five years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life. And in those early years, your child’s main way of learning and developing is through play.

About early child development

Development is the term used to describe the changes in your child’s physical growth, as well as her ability to learn the social, emotional, behaviour, thinking and communication skills she needs for life. All of these areas are linked, and each depends on and influences the others.

In the first five years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life. Your child’s early experiences – his relationships and the things he sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate his brain, creating millions of connections. This is when the foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life are laid down.

Babies are born ready to learn, and their brains develop through use. So your child needs a stimulating and caring environment with lots of different activities that give her plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what she’s learning.


Relationships: the foundation for child development

Children’s relationships affect all areas and stages of their development.

This is because relationships are experiences. In fact, relationships are the most important experiences in your child’s environment because they teach him the most about the world around him. They also shape the way he sees the world.

Through relationships, your child learns whether the world is safe and secure, whether she’s loved, who loves her, what happens when she cries, laughs or makes a face, and much more.

Your child also learns by seeing relationships between other people – for example, how you behave towards your partner, and how your partner behaves towards you. This learning is the basis for the development of your child’s communication, behaviour, social and other skills.

Your child’s most important relationship is with you. Relationships with other family members, carers, including early childhood educators, and other children, are also very important.

A loving, nurturing relationship helps you and your child learn a little more about each other every day. As your child grows and develops, his needs will change. You’ll learn more about what he needs and how you can meet these needs.


Play: how child development happens

In the early years, your child’s main way of learning and developing is through play.

Play is fun for your child and gives her an opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and learn from her mistakes. She’ll need your support and encouragement to do this. But it’s important to try to find a balance between helping your child and letting her try things on her own, which means she might sometimes make mistakes. Finding out for herself about how the world works is a big part of your child’s learning.

Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with you helps your child learn the skills he needs for life. These skills include communicating, thinking, solving problems, moving and being with other people and children.

Play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. This message helps your child learn about who she is and where she fits in the world.


Other things that shape child development

Your child’s genes and other factors like healthy eating, physical activity, health and the neighbourhood you live in also have a big impact on your child’s wellbeing and development.

Healthy eating
Healthy food gives your child the energy and nutrients he needs to grow and develop. It helps develop his sense of taste. Healthy family food and eating patterns in the early years can set up healthy eating habits for life.

Your child learns about food choices from you, so the best way to help your child develop healthy eating habits is to let her see you preparing, eating and enjoying healthy food yourself.

Physical activity
Being physically active gets your child moving. It develops his motor skills, helps him think and gives him an opportunity to explore his world. So your child needs plenty of opportunities for active play, both inside and outside. If you’re active yourself, your child is likely to follow your lead.

Your child’s health can influence her development. All children get sick at some point – for example, with coughs and colds, ear aches or gastroenteritis. These minor childhood illnesses generally won’t cause any long-term problems with development.

But chronic or long-term conditions can affect your child’s development. These include developmental and learning disabilities like deafblindness or autism spectrum disorder as well as conditions like cystic fibrosis, cancer or cerebral palsy.

If your child has a chronic condition, it’s a good idea to talk with your GP, child and family health nurse or other medical specialist – for example, a paediatrician. These health professionals can tell you about how your child’s condition might affect development and how you can best support your child.

Neighbourhood and local community
Your neighbourhood and local community influence your child’s development. For example, your child’s development is supported by positive relationships with friends and neighbours, and access to playgrounds, parks, shops and local services like child care, playgroups, kindergartens, schools, health centres and libraries.


Developing at different rates

Children grow and develop at different rates.

Some parents worry about when their child will walk, and others worry about when their baby’s first teeth will appear. Most skills develop in the same order, but the age they happen might vary even for children in the same family.

If you’re wondering about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might help to remember that development is different for every child. For example, the typical age range for children to start walking is 8-18 months. So if your child isn’t walking at 14 months, that’s OK.

If you really feel that something isn’t quite right with your child’s development, trust your instinct. See your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician.


Being a parent

Whether you’re raising a child as a parent, grandparent, kinship carer or foster parent, you’re always learning. We all make mistakes and learn through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know and ask questions.

Your own physical and mental health is an important part of raising a child. But with all the focus on looking after a child or baby, lots of parents and carers forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after yourself will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to raise your child.


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