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7 ways to ace early years parenting

It's all about developing 'soft' life skills through play, according to St Joseph's College's Mark Bushby and Gemma Davies. Which means stand down all you tiger mums!

This one’s for parents of little ‘uns, following an interesting chat with Head of Prep Mark Bushby and Head of Early Years Gemma Davies at St Joseph’s College in Reading (I reviewed the school here). We live in an alarming age of tiger mums, helicopter parenting (er, guilty as charged, m’lud) and child mental health issues, but it’s not all bad – here are Mark and Gemma’s tips to help set our little people on a path to happiness.

girl wearing glasses reading on pile of books

Don’t get hung up on academics

Mark: The 3Rs are undoubtedly important but confidence and self-esteem are really important too. If a child feels confident and sure that their efforts will be appreciated they’re in a good position to learn effectively and deal with any obstacles along the way.

Gemma: Children are sensitive to the pressure and may feel anxious about failing. Activities which are open ended allow children to persevere, to solve problems and to overcome difficulties. Reading stories together builds language, listening, social and emotional skills, and helps to develop relationships. High aspirations are great but success is about so much more than academic achievement.


children playing make believe suitcase hats flying a plane

Let them take risks

Mark: Calculated risks are good. With the support of grown ups, the drive should be to manage risk rather than avoid it. We encourage children with support from the adults around them. Their environment also needs to be conducive – if they feel comfortable in a setting they will be confident to explore the boundaries of their comfort zone.

Gemma: Rather than telling them to ‘be careful’ or to avoid a risky situation by saying ‘no’ we ask them ‘is that safe?’ or ‘can you think of a safer way to do that?’ It’s very important for children to take risks – but involves thinking for themselves, trusting their judgement and embracing challenge. Children should be encouraged to ‘have a go’. By finding their own way through a challenge, children realise an enormous sense of pride.


two boys under blanket looking at an iPad

Should we sack the digital nanny?

Mark: There’s increasing national concern about children’s screen usage, as evidenced by recent research. Overuse of screens impacts on social, communication and writing skills amongst others. It’s not realistic or helpful to ban screens completely, however parents need to spend more time playing, reading or simply talking to their children. Some activities may require a bit of mess or effort on the parent’s part, but they are much more worthwhile learning experiences for a child than staring at a screen.

Gemma: Don’t be afraid of boredom! Children can learn a lot from being bored, and can be very resourceful with everyday objects and the world around them. They don’t need to be constantly entertained with days out and costly activities, time in the garden can be equally fulfilling. It’s much better to enjoy limited screen time together, and make more space for other activities. Parents should also look at their own screen use habits, as children will model the behaviours they see in their parents.


children welly boots jumping in puddles

Boot them outdoors

Mark: The emphasis on learning shouldn’t be just about being in the classroom. Outdoor learning allows children to build life skills –perseverance, resilience, collaboration, problem solving and communication. Some activities are better suited to either indoor or outdoor learning. It’s important to both nurture interests and push them outside their comfort zone.

Gemma: Outside they are able to make choices and take risks that wouldn’t be available to them in the classroom. Don’t think you have to head out into the countryside, the urban environment is probably even more diverse, with a different set of risks and experiences to explore.


Girl child ballerina stretching

Remember they’re not your mini-me

Mark: Parents often want to give their children opportunities they had as a child – or sometimes the opportunities they didn’t have and have always regretted. It’s important to encourage your child’s specific talents, but also to push them to try things they find challenging too.

Gemma: If you watch and listen to your child you will start to understand what intrigues them. Being part or a team, such as a sport squad, choir or orchestra allows them to strive to be the best as part of a team, rather than just as an individual. This also encourages team working and peer support, whilst still encouraging children to shine


Give yourselves a break…

Mark: Raising a child will always be a journey into unfamiliar territory – even more so for a first child. Babies don’t come with instruction manuals! Sometimes you have unrealistic expectations of your child, especially when comparing them to others. Every child’s journey will be individual so it’s important to focus on the invidual rather than to compare.

Gemma: Enjoy this distinctive time in their lives! This is the time when children learn through play, and find delight in experiences that older children and adults may consider mundane. Talk to them, make sure you listen too, simply taking time to be with them and in their world is invaluable.


children playing make believe suitcase hats flying a plane


It’s a team effort

Gemma: Developing a love of life and a love for learning is key. At this age, children also start to learn the resilience to face challenges and to persevere when they encounter difficulties. It’s important that they can clearly see our Early Years staff care about them – if they feel safe and happy they’ll be ready to learn. At St Joseph’s, we’re a community that feels very much like a family, who are able to forgive each other and ourselves, to value individuality and to celebrate effort.

Mark: The regular informal dialogue between teachers and parents is invaluable – those chats at the end of the day are really helpful for everyone and ensure your child has a whole team on their side, every singleday. Every child’s journey will be individual so it’s important not to compare them to others

Wanna know more? St Joseph College‘s Early Years Open Morning is on Fri 15 Mar

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