We live in stressful times and often work pressure spills over into our homes. Children sometimes bear the brunt of this, which is why it’s important to find ways to get organised, slow down and let them enjoy unhurried time to play and be themselves.

Recently I attended a talk at my youngest son’s pre-school by Dana Katz, an occupational therapist who studied at the University of Cape Town. She spoke about how children develop skills for learning and said that the number of kids requiring therapy, especially in the developed world, is exponentially on the rise.

Samuel and Matthew on monkey barsKatz said all learning involving cognition and the intellect is founded on your sensory systems. What I found really interesting is that there are seven sensory systems (not five, as I’ve always thought). They are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touch, vestibular and proprioception. Those last two big words mean this: vestibular refers to your inner ear i.e. balance and your body’s movements, while proprioception refers to the position of your body in space and knowing what your muscles and joints are doing in any given position.

These last three senses – touch, vestibular and proprioception – form the base skills in a child’s development. This makes sense – before you can start cutting with a pair of scissors, you’re learning to sit up, toppling over, crawling and grabbing the side of the coffee table so that you can pull yourself up. “Gravity allows the baby’s brain to map out the position of the body in space or schema,” said Katz.

It’s because we’re wired like this that deep touch – like a hug or massage – calms us down. The message that Katz wanted to drive home for us as parents is that we must “feed the roots” i.e. the tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive senses – rather than the leaves.

“Play is a child’s occupation,” she stated simply, arguing strongly in favour of children being allowed time every day that is completely up to them how they spend. “Downtime and free time is so important,” she said. “Giving your child more time allows them to play, to imagine, to be.” This is where the “back to basics” kicks in – go for a walk to the local park, climb trees, make castle forts out of the lounge furniture, have fun getting dressed up, finding a fun craft activity or doing some baking together. These are all great ways to connect with your children, while also allowing them to develop at their own pace.

On a practical level, Katz recommends doing as much preparation the night before to make the school run in the mornings easier. “You’d be surprised what a difference getting up 15 minutes earlier can make,” she said, emphasising that if you as the parent are calm, it’s more than likely that your children will be too. (Obviously, the converse is also true!) This concept is known as co-regulation, where you and the child together regulate your sensory environment.

More tips for success: No TV or screen time after 5pm (that includes Mommy’s cell phone!). “The brain still processes information two hours after you’ve switched the TV off,” Katz said. Have dinner together, make sure your kids get enough sleep (preschoolers should be getting 12 hours every night), play board games and card games as a family.

Something that really struck me was that we shouldn’t solve all our children’s problems for them. We must allow them to do things for themselves and clean up their own messes (literally). This could be simple chores like feeding the cat, taking out the rubbish or weeding the garden.

Here’s a real-life example: a couple of weeks ago, I was amazed when my eldest son, aged six, offered to make me breakfast in bed. I groaned inwardly, thinking of the mess, the spilled milk and corn flakes all over the countertop. “Okay,” I agreed, taking a chance. And he and his little brother did everything themselves, standing on two chairs in the kitchen, and I’m pleased to say that nothing that I dreaded actually happened. No smashed bowls or major spillage at all – plus I got to have breakfast in bed with them, which is always a treat.

Katz ended her talk with a beautiful poem by Herbert Parker, which really sums up what we should be bearing in mind as we walk this journey of parenting:

The mind of a child is a beautiful place,

An Eden where many things grow,

A garden of beauty where, sheltered by love,

Grow flowers row upon row.

The mind of a child is a wonderful place,

Where wishes and dreams are so real,

Where kittens and puppies and gingerbread men

Can actually talk and feel.

The mind of a child is a mystical place,

Where character grows like a tree,

And children become either better or worse,

By action of you or of me.