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6 of the most important development milestones for children, as Princess of Wales launches campaign

Kate has launched the Shaping Us campaign, focusing on early years development (Justin Tallis/PA)
Kate has launched the Shaping Us campaign, focusing on early years development (Justin Tallis/PA)

The Princess of Wales has unveiled her latest project, said to be her ‘life’s work’, focusing on how childhood experiences impact adult lives.

The Shaping Us campaign, introduced with a claymation video showing a young girl growing from the age of zero to five, aims to improve society’s understanding of how a child’s environment and interactions shape their adulthood.

“The way we develop, through our experiences, relationships and surroundings during our early childhood, fundamentally shapes our whole lives,” Kate said.

“It affects everything from our ability to form relationships and thrive at work, to our mental and physical wellbeing as adults, and the way we parent our own children.”

Launched by The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, the long-term project is supported by celebrities including Professor Green, Fearne Cotton, Giovanni Fletcher, Zara McDermott and Leah Williamson.

Encouraging parents and society at large to prioritise “the most preventative years,” Kate continued: “By focusing our collective time, energy and resources to build a supportive, nurturing world around the youngest members of our society and those caring for them, we can make a huge difference to the health and happiness of generations to come.”

How can you best support the little ones in your life as they grow? Here, psychology experts talk through the key developmental milestones for under-fives…

1. Sensory integration

“In the first two years of life, the brain undergoes the most rapid growth and development,” says senior family therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, author of Small Steps To Great Parenting (kalanitbenari.com).

Sensory integration refers to the brain’s processing of the senses, she explains: “Babies need space to move, crawl and play, while toddlers benefit from opportunities to develop large and fine motor skills through physical activities, puzzles, drawing and cutting with scissors, jumping and more.”

That’s why it’s important for caregivers to provide a safe space for babies to try out different sensory-stimulating activities.

“Allow time for each stage to be practised, and don’t rush development. For example, crawling is crucial for right brain and left brain connection, that can impact later emotional regulation, concentration, academic success and more.”

2. First words

Language development starts before a child can speak,” says Matt Buttery, CEO of Triple P Positive Parenting Programme (triplep.net). “Whether making sounds, gurgling or using facial expressions, your child is trying to communicate with you, and it’s important to respond by repeating the sounds or expressions back to them.”

He recommends spending 15 to 30 minutes a day talking and listening to your child without distractions, to help them turn those experimental babbling sounds into words.

“Setting an early precedent of open communication is a crucial step to forging healthy parent-child relationships,” he says. “Be patient and realistic with your expectations – by age three, most children can understand more than 800 words and use words together in short sentences.”

3. First play date

Play dates with other toddlers are an important step in encouraging social skills.

“They can be a way for your child to learn about sharing, taking turns, and communicating what they want in a constructive way,” says Buttery.

“Setting a good example will help your child to understand which behaviours are more desirable. Teach them how to share cooperatively and praise that behaviour when it happens.”

4. Learning to read

“This is a crucial building block in their educational development, but also in developing their creativity and imagination,” says Buttery, who recommends setting aside some reading time every day for three-year-olds and up.

“Creating an encouraging, positive learning environment will make them eager to start to read by themselves, as they learn more words as they get older,” he continues. “However, don’t force your child to listen to a story if they are not interested – try another time.”

5. Expressing identity

Around three- or four-years-old, children start using games to try out different characters.

“The developmental impulse is to express the many facets of the self,” Ben-Ari explains. “The healthy outcome is that the child develops a secure, differentiated and integrated sense of self.”

She recommends parents “reflect back to the child whatever character they are trying, without judgment or criticism. The message the child receives is ‘It’s OK to be yourself’.”

6. Starting school

Starting school, and the weeks preceding, can be an emotional time for both parents and kids.

“Ask your child how they’re feeling about starting school, and tell them about your own positive memories,” Buttery says. “Answer questions honestly and familiarise them with what to expect.”

Have regular catch-ups to see how they’re getting on and, if it makes you and/or them feel better, you could get involved with school activities.

“You may be able to volunteer to help supervise on outings, join the school parents’ association, or even just organise a coffee catch-up with another parent and their child,” Buttery adds. “All of these can help encourage your child to be more comfortable, confident and to forge friendships.”