5 secrets I learnt from early childhood educators

Advice from the experts: help, but don't rescue.
Advice from the experts: help, but don't rescue. Photo: Getty Images

Long before I had children, I was working with them. And not only was I working with children, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the most committed, skilled and specialised professionals I have ever met.

Early childhood professionals make it all look easy. Setting up a room that will invite play, creativity and communication; reframing and understanding children's challenging behaviours; knowing different strategies to try no matter the situation.

In the years since I've had my son, the little gems these professionals taught me have stuck in my mind. While to many early childhood professionals they seem like common sense, to the rest of us it helps to have some reminders.

1. Less is more

It may seem counterintuitive, but reducing the number of toys your child has access to actually helps them concentrate, to be creative, to persevere and to become more resourceful. Research from the late 1990s showed that when early childhood workers in Germany packed away toys in a kindergarten for a three-month period, leaving only tables, chairs and blankets, the children's communication and concentration skills improved.

Of course, children are always seeking new experiences, and in a few weeks those same play objects might not inspire the imagination in quite the same way they did initially. But there is a simple answer to this …

2. Rotate toys

Rotation is one of the best ways to deal with toy clutter and overload. But before you start to rotate, you need to divide and conquer. First, have a look at any toys that are broken or have missing parts. They need to go straight to the toy graveyard. Then have a look at what your child regularly plays with and pop the other toys away and out of sight in tubs, baskets or zipped bags. It might not sound like much, but four or five play objects (eg, blocks, balls, a tea set, containers, dress ups, playdough, dolls) can be plenty to spark the imagination.

3. Let them battle it out


When talking about children learning to share and resolve their conflicts, early childhood educator Magda Gerber has wise words. "It's obviously easier to separate two struggling children at the outset of a conflict. However, I feel that the earlier children learn to struggle, negotiate, and get along with others, the better off they'll be," she says.

"You may wonder how letting children struggle over a toy teaches them to get along with others, but struggle is a normal part of human relations. The important learning experience is to resolve your problem – yet, when we see children trying to solve a problem, we don't let them. We feel they are suffering."

The more that we as parents intervene in our children's tussles over toys, the more we increase our kids' reliance on us to solve their problems. It can be difficult to watch children struggle, but as long as there is no danger to either child, you can sit back and allow your child to learn vital skills in negotiation, anger management and sharing. It's always a good idea to try this out with other like-minded parents!

4. Help, but don't rescue

I was once working at a playgroup when a little girl climbed the stairs to the top of the slide then froze. "Help!" she called down to us. "Help, help!" Instinct took over and I immediately went over to lift her down. An experienced older colleague came over to me and gently said something that has stuck with me ever since.

"You know, you just rescued that little girl. But by getting her off the slide you taught her that she couldn't do it," she said. "The best thing to do is to go over, help her to stay there, reassure her that it's okay and talk her through going down the slide. That way, you have truly helped her, and she'll know that she can do it next time."

The early childhood educators' words rang true; I watched all afternoon, but the little girl didn't go back to the slide.

5. You don't have to make your children happy

This is a big one, as parents often feel responsible for making their children happy. But as long as your children's feelings are acknowledged and named, you don't need to try to change their sadness (or whatever they might be feeling). A simple "You're feeling sad because you wanted to play with that toy" tells your child that you empathise and understand –but you don't need to intervene to try to get them what they think they need to make them happy. Making anyone happy all the time is an impossible task – and it's one more thing parents don't need to add to their already full plate.

What parenting tips have you learnt from wise people in your life?