If you walk into any SmartStart programme, you are likely to see one of three things:

1) Children interacting with toys and objects

2) Children listening to a story

3) Children playing with their friends

On the surface, the children don’t seem to be doing anything too groundbreaking – do they? However, during each of these activities, children are in fact developing complex cognitive and character skills, which are preparing them to become productive and successful adults.

But how?

Let’s consider a three-year-old child building a puzzle with a friend. They are each taking turns to complete the puzzle, break it down and build it up again.

What to us might look like a simple (and very repetitive) game, is actually helping each child develop critical foundation skills in: 1) problem solving, 2) patience, 3) impulse control, 4) memory and 5) creativity.

Here’s how: In a healthy game – supported by an engaged adult – one child will focus on how the shapes and pictures fit together (1), while the other observes patiently (2). Once they have waited their turn and resisted the urge to take over (3), they recall from memory how their friend built the puzzle and try it for themselves (4). On each turn, each child will also experiment with new or faster ways of putting the puzzle together (5).

Developing skills for success

Although the ability to focus attention or take turns might seem like a basic skill, it is at the heart of what makes us functional and successful adults.

Think about your average day as an adult. You prepare meals, juggle your to-do lists at work, attend meetings, remember to wish your friends a happy birthday, resist eating that bar of chocolate, and stand patiently in long bank queues.

Each of these activities requires you to plan, manage interruptions, remember instructions, multi-task, make decisions and practice self-control. They require you to successfully use the same skills you started learning when you were building puzzles with friends.

As adults, it’s so easy to forget that we are not born with these skills and abilities. Rather, we are born with the potential to develop and master them.

Adult interaction

Playing and engaging with a connected adult helps children develop these skills in the most successful way. According to the World Health Organisation, having a stable, caring and interactive relationship with an adult promotes healthy brain development.

That is why, at every SmartStart site, you will see an engaged and active early learning facilitator (a SmartStarter), who participates in the children’s play and extends their learning through support and conversation.

At home, parents can do the same.

It starts early

According to research, the first 1,000 days from conception to age two are critical to the development of neural pathways that lead to linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional capacities. If we want our children to become productive adults, who make heathy choices and successfully participate in the world around them, we need to lay the right foundations for physical, mental and emotional health from an early age.

And early learning helps us do this.

The ability to read and write starts with telling and listening to stories. The ability to negotiate, lead a team and express yourself starts with a game of Follow the Leader. And the ability to listen to others, show empathy and adapt our behavior to different settings starts with sharing.

Play with your children. Talk to them. Tell them stories and let them tell you theirs. The quality time you spend with them is helping to lay the best foundations for a bright future.

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