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The best way to support your child's development? Let them lead the way Add to ...

My husband was home alone with our daughter when she first pulled herself up in the crib. He had just gotten through the bedtime routine, with a good dose of pride at how well it had gone. He put her in her crib and turned away for a moment. When he looked back, she was standing up.

Her new skill meant he had to take her out of the crib, go find the tools to lower the mattress and do the whole bedtime routine again. He knew that her standing up was not a one-time thing and lowering the mattress couldn’t wait until morning, no matter how ready they both were to call it a night.

Once a baby learns a new skill, everything becomes about that skill. She is so excited by this new thing she can do, she is consumed with practising it.

When provided with the right stimuli and a supportive environment, children tend to learn and practise the skills they should be developing at that time. Trying to get her to say “mama” during the pull-up Olympics would be a wasted effort because all her energy is focused on standing up.

Let kids develop at their own pace

When adults try to force skills on children when they aren’t ready to learn them, the skill they should be learning suffers, and in the end neither one properly takes hold.

According to Dawne Clark, co-director of the Centre for Child Well-Being at Mount Royal University in Calgary, it’s about respecting your child’s “sensitive periods.” As a child’s brain develops, she explains, these windows of opportunity occur at just the time your child is ready to learn something new, like how to make a sound or how to perform a physical skill. “When these sensitive periods are over, she is still able to learn that sound or skill but it will be much more difficult,” Clark says. “Complex skills (such as running and jumping) are built on top of more simple skills (such as walking and balancing) that have been rehearsed and solidly established.”

The notion that we need to trust our kids and the process of growth and development is relevant long after our children are infants. We need to stay attuned to our kids so we can nurture the skills they are ready to focus on. Children will let us know when they are ready to learn something new because they will begin practising it all the time. It’s up to us to notice.

Staying in the present

The patience and openness needed to do this can be in conflict with our culture, which emphasizes and rewards pushing kids to excel earlier and faster. After all, most of us project into the future, imagining things that are to come: crawling, walking, running, dancing, skating and playing sports. It’s one thing to have dreams for our kids, but it’s another to push our own accelerated agenda.

The best way we can help our children learn the right skill at the right time is by trusting that they know what they are ready for and supporting their efforts. Here are some guidelines (adapted from Active for Life’s Skills Builder tool) to help you support your child in creating a foundation she can keep building on.

Being active will improve your child’s health, happiness and self-esteem. It will reduce the risk of injuries, stress, anxiety and depression. The key is to remember that the most important things cannot be rushed. Or, as the zen teaching goes: “You can’t make a leaf unfold.”

Age 0 to 2

This is a time to play with your child. Let her explore, experiment and practise different skills such as pulling up, crawling, walking, running, throwing and catching.

At age 2, fun games such as “Head and shoulders, knees and toes” and “Mirror mirror,” in which children imitate the movements of a parent, are great ways to develop co-ordination and balance.

Kids at this age are terrific mimics, and if you spend time moving in their presence they will probably try to follow along.

Age 2 to 4

This age group learns skills through playing. This is not the time for team sports but rather for plenty of visits to the park, short family walks and playing fun games together. Exploring nature every day is essential, even if all you have access to is a tiny patch of grass, which seems much bigger to small humans.

An easy way to play with your preschooler at home is to blow up some balloons to kick around, throw, catch or bat with a paper towel roll. These activities help develop co-ordination and targeting.

Age 4 to 6

Four- to six-year-olds can start to explore more complicated skills through play. At this age most kids become more confident in their abilities and often start to take more risks, like climbing higher on playground equipment. Ultimately this is still a time to keep the focus on active free play and fun, skill-building games such as hopscotch, not on organized sports.

This is also a time to trust your child’s ability to judge what she is able to do. Give her space to climb trees and play structures. Challenging herself is not only how she improves her skills, it helps her learn the boundaries of safety.

Age 6 to 8

Kids in this range can start practising all their skills, acquired through active play, in different sports and activities. This is when they learn how to connect various skills and apply them in the context of sports and games. Throwing, for example, can be adapted for throwing a baseball, a rugby ball or a curling rock. And soccer combines kicking with running.

If your child is interested in trying team sports this is a good time to start sampling them. Trying many activities is a good way for your child to find the thing they love to do, and also prevents overuse injuries that can result from specializing in one sport too soon.

Of course, kids should still have lots of time for free play. If sports are not what you imagine when you think about all that’s ahead for your child, learning the basic movement skills (like running, jumping, hopping and throwing) will give them the confidence to play with their friends, join activities and lead an active life for years to come.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Sara Smeaton loves to be active and healthy and doesn’t let her lack of sports skills and experience stand in the way of raising two active children with her husband. Sara is a senior contributing editor and social media strategist for Active for Life , a not-for-profit initiative committed to helping parents raise healthy, happy kids who are physically literate. Find Active for Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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