To really master something, be it maths, sports or sewing, you need to practise it. But it’s a discipline that comes more easily to some than others. Here are some fun ways of instilling the art of practice into your child’s psyche from the early years.
Ever watched someone at the very top of their field (music, sport, dance, singing – whatever) and thought to yourself, “I wish I could be that good?”. The slightly scary news is that, if you really wanted to achieve mastery so much that you were prepared to put in the required hours of practice, you’d probably get there! Research tells us that the elite, in almost any field, reach the top only after investing around 10,000 hours of practice into perfecting their art. Not only that, on their way to stardom, many actually fall in love with practice itself! All of which has a lot of implications for how we encourage our children in the art of practice in their early years.
practice and fun – a great combo!
When it comes to learning how to practise, it almost doesn’t matter what your littlies set out to do. The main thing is that the activity they engage in is fun. So unless your under-5 is chomping at the bit for a violin or a pair of running shoes, start with something you know they’ll enjoy – not just once, but over and over again (see our suggestions below to get you started).
ready with the routine
If you’ve ever decided to get fit, you’ll know that setting aside a particular time of the day for exercise works best. You come to expect it, it takes priority over almost everything else, and you kind of miss it if it doesn’t happen. In helping your under-5 learn the art of practice, try to have them engage in their chosen activity at the same time each day. The best time is when they’re feeling fresh and when there are no distractions. There are no rules for how long a practice session should be. Be guided by the length of time you feel your child will comfortably stick at the activity. Let your child help with setting out and putting away any equipment that’s needed (this encourages independent habits which they’ll need when they’re older and operating without you). Spend some of the practice session assisting your child, but aim to let them practise alone for some of the time. In doing this, you’re encouraging them to take responsibility for their own practice – something that becomes more important when they’re older. Conclude each practice session with something pleasurable such as a story or a healthy snack. Whatever you do, keep in mind that fun and routine is what you’re after.
reaping the rewards
Everyone thrives on being rewarded. When it comes to your little one’s practice, acknowledge success at each stage of the journey, don’t wait until the final result has been reached. Rewards can be as simple as praise and clapping, but can also be more formalised with stickers or tick charts. Above all, let your child’s delight in their own growing sense of achievement be their main reward and encourage them to give a “performance” once they’ve achieved a milestone. Something simple such as “Come and ask Mum to watch once you can get the hoop over the stick” is all that’s required. On the road to achievement, talk with them about what they can do, how much better they are getting, and what step (goal) they’re looking forward to working on next (“So you think that you might try balancing on two books tomorrow. That will be exciting!”) Once your child masters their chosen skill, move on to another while encouraging them to dip back, now and again, into the activity they’ve previously been enjoying.
Spend some of the practice session assisting your child, but aim to let them practise alone for some of the time. In doing this, you’re encouraging them to take responsibility for their own practice – something that becomes more important when
ideas for practice-makes-perfect activities
the tight-rope walker
This activity requires balancing practice. To get started, place two books of equal thickness a couple of metres apart on a soft surface (carpet is perfect). Bridge the gap with a narrow plank of wood. Let your child try to balance their way across (they’ll be unlikely to succeed in getting very far). Let them try again, this time while they hold your hand. Next, see if they can do it while holding just one of your fingers. Make the ‘tight-rope walk’ a little trickier by asking your child to balance their way across the plank while holding onto one end of a tea towel while you hold the other. Over a period of time, encourage your child to rely less and less on your support until, finally, they can make their way across the plank unassisted. Once they’ve mastered this, have fun by raising the height of the plank at one end with the addition of an extra book. Your child will soon rise to the challenge and will almost certainly want to increase the level of difficulty again and again.
This activity is super-simple to set up. Lay a piece of string or wool on the floor to form a circle. Use a block to mark a standing spot a short distance from the circle. Give your child several hacky sacks or mini wheat bags (to make these yourself by filling child-sized socks with grain and knot the ends). The aim is to throw the bag into the circle. As your child succeeds, move the block-marker further away from the circle. Try using an egg timer to increase the challenge: “How many bags can you get into the circle before the timer dings?”.
For this activity, you’ll need a simple instrument capable of producing different notes. A xylophone, chime bars or electronic keyboard will all work well. Using coloured dots, construct a simple three-note tune on a piece of card. Keep it short (just a phrase or two for a start). Use coloured stickers to mark the same notes on the instrument. Show your child how to ‘read the music’ and play out the tune on the instrument. This is a great activity to perform to an audience once your child has mastered the skill.
• Children will soon tire of repeating an activity they can already master. Keep them interested in practice by changing activities or increasing the challenge within the same activity.
• Mastering a skill works best if it’s divided into achievable steps. When working on mastering the next step, repeating what has already been learned can be a time-waster.
• Everyone needs a break from regular practice, whether they want it or not. Factor in a rest day or two from the routine each week.
• Encourage children to decide for themselves the skill they’d like to master.
Catlins author, Diana Noonan, is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers for children. A former editor of the iconic School Journal, she writes for a wide range of educational resources, and takes a strong interest in the New Zealand Curriculum.