Early years expert Clare Devlin on screen time, shopping and a good old empty box

From playing with cardboard boxes to keeping your children occupied when dining out, Co Derry early education consultant Clare Devlin advises parents on how best to spend quality time with their children, while supporting their learning and development. Jenny Lee finds out more

Playing with cardboard boxes can be one of the cheapest and enjoyable activities parents can do with their young children

CLARE Devlin lives in The Loup, Co Derry and is a mother of two children, aged 20 and 14. She has 30 years' experience working within primary and early years education. A former teacher and director of programmes with the Early Years Organisation, she now designs and delivers bespoke early education training workshops across Ireland and Britain, on topics including play, outdoor learning and creativity. A firm believer in the power of 'being with children' she passes on some advice to parents on how best to engage with their young children.

How important is play for children's development and ability to learn?

Play is widely acknowledged as a primary medium for young children's learning and has been recognised by the UN Convention for Human Rights as a right for every child. Play also provides parents, early years practitioners and teachers with opportunities to gain a deeper insight into the child's understanding of early concepts.

At what age should a child be allowed to use a tablet device?

Parents use screens to share things such as stories, photos, music or animations with babies and young children. I recently observed a mother and five-year-old child using a tablet to view and discuss the latest Brexit news. The important thing is that the adult is present and shares the experience. Screen time becomes problematic when young children are left for long periods of time to entertain themselves. What we think is just five minutes can very quickly become 30 minutes or even longer.

How do you advise parents set guidelines on screen use?

This should be agreed with the child in a way that the child understands the reason for the limits. It is really important that children do not take screen devices to bed. Screen time tends to over stimulate young brains, making it more difficult for children to sleep. Children should have a calm bedtime routine that includes a story where possible. Story time provides the child with a strong social connection to their parent or carer, as well as promoting language development, imagination and creating positive habits for the child.

What alternatives do you have for parents who hand a young screaming child a smart phone to play with in a shop or restaurant to keep them quiet?

An alternative way to engage children is to include them in the experience. In the shop, give each item to the child to place in basket, naming them. As they get older, ask them to find and collect the items and help pack the bags.

If you are going to a restaurant bring some items that will engage your child's mind. Young children like to post little items into boxes, take things apart, build things, look at books, draw pictures, tear or cut paper and join things together. My children's favourite items included Lego, paper, scissors, Pritt stick and pencils. You can also get great mileage from learning to punch holes in card with a hole puncher, then thread string through the holes.

What advice do you have for working parents on how to engage with their children at the end of the day, without over-stimulating them before bed?

Children don't want anything other than our undivided attention. I had to make a very conscious decision when my children were small and I was returning from work at 6pm, not to use screen time as a distraction. I set up bowls, pasta, spoons and a small jug of water and they would pour, mix and stir merrily beside me. We chatted and I casually provided language for what they were using and doing. This is how children develop language and communication skills, giving them a great advantage when they start school.

Should parents sit down and plan creative experiences for their children on a weekly basis?

Parents put too much pressure on themselves trying to plan for exciting and entertaining experiences. Rather, we should get creative with everyday ordinary things. For example – a cat. Talk about the detail, the cat's ears, whiskers, stripes, fur, paws, claws, teeth, then provide tools for drawing, cutting and sticking.

And nothing is better than a good old-fashioned play with a cardboard box. Young children love to crawl in and out of boxes and play peek-a-boo with an adult or older sibling. Others like to imagine that the box is a tool shed or a hospital and older children like to build, balance and construct with boxes.

How best can you incorporate older siblings in creative play?

Timeless toys such as Lego and wooden blocks afford children the opportunity to play together but at their own age and stage of development. The younger child might simply drop bricks into another box and then tip them out again. For them, it is all about being close to their older sibling, copying and learning to be like them. It is important that adults monitor any risk that may be caused by small parts or sharp tools.

What is your top tip for mess-free messy play?

Children need many opportunities to play and experiment with a variety of materials without having to achieve an end result. I recently observed children spend time pouring glitter into glue and mixing potions. The mess was contained on one table, which was covered with disposable covering. At the end everything was wrapped up and binned. You can do the same with paint on newspaper.

How important is outdoor play all year round?

As the Norwegians say, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. When it is raining, let your children go out and splash in puddles, watch how raindrops make ripples in the puddles and notice reflections in puddles.

The outdoors is great place to indulge in more messy play. A sand pit for digging, pouring and mixing water into is an all-time great. Just keep the sand covered with a porous ground sheet if you are concerned about cats or dogs paying a visit.

Are we too obsessed with safety in 2019 to the extent it restricts a child's natural instincts to explore?

It is only natural that parents and practitioners want to protect children. But we don't want to over-restrict children's play to the point where we stifle learning, development, experimentation and creativity.

Children need opportunities to learn about and manage risk in everyday life. Risky play helps children to develop life skills such as resilience, resourcefulness, balance and coordination, understanding of cause and effect, creativity, confidence, and problem solving.

:: For further information on early years training visit

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