Gabby Holden, the Head of Early Learning Service Development at Uniting, shares why the first few years are so vital for development and learning.
When it comes to the long-term health and wellbeing of a child, the first 1000 days are essential.
The experiences a child has in their first years are crucial to how their brain develops, which can affect their entire life. In my profession, we speak with parents daily – carefully shaping programs to ensure their child has the best possible start, and laying the foundations for their brightest future.
Every parent wants their child to begin school with self-assurance and the ability to build knowledge through a range of learning approaches. To enable this, the formative years of brain development are critical – they are a window of opportunity, rich in physical, intellectual and emotional growth.
How can you ensure your child's first 1000 days are enabling them to prosper? Here are some ways to fuel your child's development and learning.
Create a nurturing environment
Establishing a sense of security is paramount. Building nurturing and supportive environments will enable your child's mind to flourish.
The brain is pliable and extremely impressionable - when a child is confident in their environment, cognitive and academic learning is able to thrive.
Create opportunities that allow children to learn
It's the simple things that have the biggest impact. I often chat with parents who are very focussed on the importance of language and literacy, and while these are important, we shouldn't forget other key elements of a child's wellbeing.
From the moment a child is born, we "coo" and make animated expressions. These actions are bound together, bit by bit, teaching a child about communication and positive relationships. And regardless of whether a parent is actively or subconsciously creating learning opportunities, a child will always learn. It is the degree of learning and what exactly they will learn that needs attention.
Within the first 1000 days of a child's life, creating learning opportunities are essential. For example, physical movement lays pathways in the brain that support cognition. Creating these opportunities in planned environments allows children to develop a critical mind, enabling them to explore and problem solve. If an educator or caregiver is present they're able to observe and further nurture a child's learning.
Tailoring the environment to your child
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to brain development. Identifying a child's own interests and sense of agency creates an environment where a child can thrive.
I encourage new parents to let their children investigate and explore the world around them, opening their mind to new surroundings and allowing them to discover new interests.
Children in their first 1000 days are hungry for experiences. It's wonderful observing them explore in our learning environments, where they are safe and able to guide the routines and experiences that they are involved in.
I've seen children drawn to construction, so we encourage them to build with blocks or play in the sandpit where they interact with others and are immensely proud of the work they develop. They name their creations and let their imaginations run with the possibilities of what to create next. Supported by peers and educators, they have repeated opportunities to revisit and further their knowledge, share their understanding with others, and be an active and involved member of their community.
These tailored environments raise positivity and enable children to learn valuable skills in an environment they enjoy. Think back to your fondest memories - they're often with the people and things you love most. Learning is the same, best fostered where they learn from and with others and in a setting that evokes happiness.
Safety and relationship building
Parent and child bonding is fundamental. Understandably, separation is difficult for both parent and child. Good early learning educators promote a safe culture and foster strong relationships with families, assisting children (and parents) to form new attachments and embrace exploration.
When a child doesn't feel safe, they can't function at their best. Their brain travels down a trail of perceived threat, impairing their ability to explore freely. Safety allows a child to feel secure in their environment, allowing them to understand that they're in a safe place where they can interact and explore.
We've found great success in pairing children with educators who are able to share in the excitement of their learning and validate their knowledge. It's important for the development of trust that these relationships are formed in addition to and with family members.
Access quality early learning education
It's imperative your local early learning service is rich in educators with a sound knowledge of child development. It's impossible for a child to reach their full potential if quality standards aren't being met.
A quality early learning service draws upon a child's strengths, their cultural background, abilities and interests. Our educators observe individual children in group environments, putting the right amount of challenge in place to build solid foundations for school and lifelong learning. It could be something as simple as placing a ball in front of a child and monitoring whether they will play with it on their own, or interact with others by passing them the ball; such a simple activity provides bold behavioural insights.
An equal combination of education and care are vital in the first 1000 days of a child's life, and a quality early learning service empowers children to feel confident in their decisions and surroundings.