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TodayHow to encourage children's sporting abilities - without pressure.

How to encourage children's sporting abilities - without pressure.

Being active through sport is beneficial for young and old alike, but often, a passion for sports is fostered at an early age. Sport is a fun way for children to develop skills like coordination, while also burning off some energy and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

It's natural for youngsters to want to use up their energy trying new, fun activities; investing in some sports equipment designed especially for children can keep little ones busy and also identify any special skills they may have. As they get older, you might want to indulge their passion with regular sports lessons where they can develop their abilities further - in the meantime, focus on keeping sport fun by avoiding pressure. Read our top tips for fostering a love of sport among your offspring. 

Prioritise participation

The saying goes: it's not the winning that matters but the taking part, and this is a valuable lesson to impart when introducing kids to sport. Helping youngsters understand that participation can be fun regardless of the results is the best way to ensure that sport is enjoyable, even if they don't always win. It's easy for competitiveness to sneak in when playing sports but reining it in can remove stress from the situation, making sport a fun learning experience for children.

Keep your cool

Teaching little ones to play sports can be a testing and sometimes frustrating process, but remaining calm and cool-headed can make all the difference to how your child feels about playing sport in the future. Resisting the temptation to shout or criticise youngsters can help them feel happy rather than anxious or stressed. Encourage them to try again if they're struggling with something and use positive reinforcement to identify what they're doing right, rather than focusing on what might be going wrong.

Know when to stop

Not all children take an interest in sport at the same age, and some kids enjoy certain activities more than others; with this in mind, avoid forcing youngsters into a sport they don't like, or that they're not ready for. Sometimes parents can push their own ideas on to their kids, often inadvertently, but children need to develop at their own pace. Kids will figure out their own likes and dislikes when introduced to different sports, so be child-led when selecting sports for them to focus on.

Slow and steady

Practice makes perfect and this is often the case when it comes to sport, but introducing kids to new activities slowly can be just what they need for their interest to grow. Children can become bored or fed up quickly when the novelty has worn off, so don't feel the need to overdo it by pushing too much. If your child is constantly asking to play a certain sport, why not set aside some specific time during the week when they get to play to their heart's content? A regular weekly slot can be more special than performing the same sport every day, giving youngsters something to look forward to each week.

Get involved

For a child's love of sport to grow, they need the support of their parents to kindle their passion. You can show your support and encourage your little one in the sport of their choice in practical ways - such as by taking them to regular sessions and having their kit and snacks ready - and also through words and conversation. Asking how practice has gone, cheering on in the crowd and familiarising yourself with the rules of the game can all help you get more involved and support your child as they progress.

Do away with tradition

Sport has traditionally been taught with a focus on developing and honing technique, but doing away with tradition and making sport more about the fun of the game can boost enjoyment levels. Facilitating sport rather than directing it can be useful in letting children learn how to play games and develop their own strategies, working out how to play as a team and seeing what each person is good at. Playing to everyone's strengths ensures each child feels valued and has fun, as opposed to piling on pressure to achieve perfection in a specific technique.

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29th September 2014How to use toys to help kids create stories.

How to use toys to help kids create stories.

Human beings have been telling stories for thousands of years, with camp fire tales the perfect way to pass on details about long-dead ancestors and even share warnings about dangers in the local environment.

Now, we are almost constantly entertained by TV programmes, radio shows and music that we can carry around in our pockets. However, the ability to make up and tell stories is still an essential skill and it's one that's well worth passing on to children by imbuing them with it at an early age.

Youngsters are naturally imaginative and will by their very nature make up tall tales on a day-to-day basis. But by capturing this skill and helping it to grow, you could be providing your offspring with vital developmental skills that will stand them in good stead well into adulthood.

Why is telling stories so important?

Good communication skills are essential in the modern world, with much being made in the media right now about young people entering the workplace without the ability to hold a conversation, conduct a debate or address clients appropriately.

All this may seem a long way off for your toddler or child, but getting them used to using their conversation skills can only be advantageous right the way through their education too. Indeed, lots of schools require kids to do presentations every so often, which can be extremely nerve-wracking unless they have had some kind of practice, so giving them a head-start will help them beat that apprehensive feeling.

Furthermore, telling stories can help brain development. It has been scientifically proven that facts are easier to remember when they are put into a narrative context, so doing this regularly will assist with recall and cognitive functioning.

Finally, getting children used to telling stories will help with their creative writing when they come to do it at school and should improve their concentration skills, as they are familiar with sitting quietly to listen to other people's tales.

How can I help my children tell stories?

The best thing about storytelling sessions is that you can do them with children of all ages, even the very young. You also don't need any equipment, although a few props can help to begin with if you want something to kick-start your own imagination.

For example, why not get hold of a set of wooden or plastic figurines and get little ones to make up scenarios based on them? You could also use toys they already have, such as Pillow Pets - these would be ideal for creating zoo, woodland or farmyard stories.

Try sitting in a cosy, quiet place without any distractions and try prompts such as asking them what they saw on a recent day out. You could also find a child-friendly fact book and make up stories about the pictures within.

For instance, choose a picture of a lion and begin a scene with a fictional creature, then get the youngster to finish it off - even if it ends up with the lion going to school or to the supermarket!

For older children, you can get much more adventurous. Why not read a fairy story and then get them to retell it in their own style? Alternatively, you might pick a series of objects and give them a minute in which to make up a story based around them - the time limit will feed their competitive nature and have them keen to beat previous attempts.

There are lots of other options, including coming up with a character and a location and asking them to describe how the character feels when walking through it, so have a play and see what works best for you.

A few tips to remember

There really are no rules when playing like this, so really let go and have fun. However, remember to always let the child take the lead. At school, they may have to stick to particular structures and goals in order to meet marking requirements, but this isn't the case at home, so let them stretch their minds.

That means carrying the story on even if, as we mentioned before, it does end up with a lion in your local supermarket; if you say 'not like that, like this', it can kill their imagination and result in boredom.

Also, don't forget to praise them regularly, whether it's for good dialogue or an original location, as this will take away any performance nerves. Encourage them to keep going regardless of 'mistakes' they feel they've made too, as it's just you and them and this can result in some really inventive solutions.

Why not give it a go the next time you're spending an afternoon together? Not only will it build all the skills we've mentioned, but it's another way of building closeness between children and their families that can't be overestimated.

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24th September 2014How to help shy children come out of their shells.

How to help shy children come out of their shells.

September is around that time of year when many children start new activities, even if they're not quite school-age yet. They might begin attending a music group for the first time, or go to a playgroup without mum or dad.

This is usually a really fun time for them as they start to glean new skills, enjoy fresh experiences, explore the world outside their home and make new friends. However, it can also be difficult if they have a tendency to be reserved and shy.

The emergence of shyness

For many youngsters, shyness will be a trait they grow out of, but others might experience it as an in-built part of their personality - maybe they're naturally slower to get used to change and quite reserved or quiet, even though they're perfectly happy in themselves.

There's nothing wrong with this at all. Many shy children go on to become high-achieving adults and it could be said that they're typically more intuitive and better at reading people's emotions than their more extrovert peers.

However, shyness can become an issue if it's actually keeping a child from enjoying new experiences because they're afraid, or compromising their performance in school later on because they're too anxious to listen properly or don't dare to ask questions. 

What can be done?

Shyness can be a worry for parents, but it's important not to try to force it out of your offspring. Your goal shouldn't be to eliminate it completely (what adult can say they never feel shy, after all?) but to enable youngsters who regularly feel it to work around it and flourish nonetheless.

They might never become the life and soul of a party, but they can still learn to function with ease in social settings and benefit from relationships with others.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it's also vital not to completely accept that a child is shy and use it as an excuse for them not to go anywhere - labelling them might make them fulfil this trait even more.

The answer of what to do lies somewhere in between; acknowledging that shyness crops up now and then, but also offering gentle encouragement to help your child overcome it.

Shyness-busting tips

There are lots of easy things you can do to help shy kids become more confident in everyday situations. Perhaps the easiest is to choose a friend you know they like and invite him or her round for half an hour. When your child shows they're comfortable with this, extend the time, then progress further by inviting more friends.

Provide toys for them to use during these interactions and perhaps encourage outdoor play if you can - taking turns on a climbing frame or slide is a great way to get conversation started.

Demonstrating your own confidence is also important, so say hello to strangers as you walk past and make small talk in shops or restaurants so your little one knows how it's done.

You can also teach them how to make eye contact, shake hands and smile when meeting new people, as these represent good coping strategies to fall back on when shyness strikes, on top of being basic good manners. Do this through role play to start with, if you like.

Finally, boost your child's self-esteem by reminding them of an event where they did really well in a public place and saying how proud you were, then pointing out that people are interested in them just as they are in others.

Shyness isn't an ailment that needs to be cured, but ensuring it doesn't become an enormous obstacle is crucial for a child's development. If youngsters get used to doing things regardless, they might eventually feel altogether more confident.

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22nd September 2014How to hold your own children's concert - indoors or out.

How to hold your own children's concert - indoors or out.

Most children love music and putting on a CD of kids' songs can be a great way to while away an hour or two as they get into the groove and dance enthusiastically.

However, their favourite tunes can get a little repetitive (for the mums and dads as well as the little ones!) and there isn't always something suitable on the TV music channels or radio with which to entertain them.

What about your own concert?

The answer to this problem could be to help them plan and host their very own concert - and then they'll have the instruments to play to themselves for ages afterwards. It could foster a lifelong love of music and maybe even get them interested in picking up a real guitar or violin when they're a bit older, as well as being hugely fun in the here and now.

It's really easy to do too, since you only need a few household items and a little forward planning to make it a roaring success. What's more, you can host a 'Proms in the Park'-style event for all the family if it's warm and sunny out, or swap it to an indoor concert if the weather takes a turn for the worst.

A concert could also be the ideal thing to do for a birthday party when all your child's friends are coming over and you don't want to book the same entertainers they've already had. Here's how to plan and stage yours.

Make the instruments

With a little creativity, a whole host of household items can become musical instruments. Get your little ones involved in a crafty session to build up a veritable orchestra in advance of the big day - all you'll need to do is supervise the parts that might be dangerous for little fingers.

For example, a painted tissue box with elastic bands stretched across the hole and a ruler stuck on one end will make a great guitar, while two cups filled with rice and taped together can be a cracking pair of maracas.

The traditional pans and lids can come out as drums and two empty coffee drums can be taped together for bongos to accompany them.

You might even consider heading to the pet shop to buy a handful of the bells typically used on cats' collars. These can be threaded onto a string or even sewn onto a pair of socks with a parent's help to be shaken with abandon as percussion. If they're attached to the edges of a sturdy paper plate, they can also become a tambourine.

A final idea is to fill empty plastic bottles with different amounts of water and line them up. When they are blown into, they will make a noise as nice as that of a flute. Don't forget to put them in some sort of rack to prevent spillages in the event of excitement, though.

Send out invitations

Another craft session is in order so that your guests will know when and where your concert is taking place. They don't have to be fancy or too formal - folded pieces of copy paper adorned with crayoned pictures and all the details will be fine.

Once they're finished, the children might enjoy walking around to drop them off at your relatives' houses, which also gets in a little extra exercise.

Have fun with the setlist

There's no need to get too carried away with the planning at this stage - it's not Sunday Night at the London Palladium. However, a little structure might be best to avoid the little ones getting bored. Perhaps some of their favourite tunes like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or Wind a Bobbin Up could be chosen and practised, while each child could be given a solo piece to make them feel super-special. If there's a confident youngster, they would probably make a good compere, or mum or dad might step in to fulfil this role.

Sit back and enjoy!

All that's left when you've done all this for you to put out some chairs, sit back and enjoy the live action, whether it's in your back garden or the living room. It's something the kids will remember for a long time and it'll also make for some fantastic photo opportunities, so get the camera poised and your best singing voices at the ready as your little rock stars take to the stage.

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16th September 2014How to make extra time to play - every day.

How to make extra time to play - every day.

A common complaint from many people with busy schedules is that there just aren't enough hours in the day to cross off all the things on their to-do lists. Despite the fact that we all get 24, we're often left wishing there was just a little more time to achieve what we had intended.

This can often result in frustration, particularly among parents of young children. For example, you might have hoped to enjoy an evening of playing board games together when you got home from work, only to be faced with a mountain of bills to pay, emails to catch up on and phone calls to dutifully make. Before you know it, it's their bedtime.

This can be a bad thing for kids too, as they might be more likely to drift towards computer games and the TV if they find themselves at a loss for things to do. It may result in a feeling of missing out as well - a past poll by the Family and Parenting Institute discovered that 75 per cent of youngsters in London and the south-east would like to spend more time with their mothers and fathers, while 54 per cent and 45 per cent in the north of England and the Midlands respectively felt they did not see their parents as much as they would like.

It's not just an issue for parents who work full-time either. Even stay-at-home mums and dads can find their hours slipping away as they do jobs like cooking and cleaning.

However, don't despair - our guide below could help you discover some top tips that will enable your family to create more play time.

Plan ahead

You don't need a military-style timetable, but a little forward planning can work wonders. Perhaps you could arrange to come home from work early one night a week, or do all your shopping in one day to leave the others free of top-up trips. 

Similarly, having some games or toys on-hand and ready to play with might be helpful, as dithering when faced with hours of free time can be counter-productive and might result in youngsters wandering off.

Squeeze play into the everyday

If you just can't shoehorn play into one of your days, don't despair - fit it around what you're already doing. Waiting at the doctor's surgery could be the perfect chance to play noughts and crosses or a pocket magnetic game such as Ludo, for instance.

A walk to the shops or to school that you do every day can be turned into a play experience by getting little ones more involved. Try getting them to skip until they next see a red car, or start up a round of I Spy. It'll boost their developmental skills and prevent any of the complaints about tiredness that can arise during this type of trip too.

Have shared hobbies

If you enjoy doing something like scrapbooking or playing sports in your spare time, then why not make it a family affair? You could join a club with your kids or, if you're not that good, set up games in your garden or home. A net and a couple of bats is all you need to begin a badminton tournament, while a few crafty bits will keep little ones occupied for hours.

Another good winter activity is making paper aeroplanes, particularly if dad is an aviation enthusiast.

Work out what you can weed out

We all have our long-established routines and they're often quite comforting, but how many things do you do in a day just because you've always done them? If this is the case, they could be ditched in favour of play time.

For instance, you might always watch the morning news while the kids have breakfast, or check the websites of the daily papers. Addictive though this can be, you can easily stop. If there's anything vital in the news you'll find out about it anyway, plus your wellbeing could actually be boosted if you're not exposed to some of the depressing images prevalent in the media today.

Instead, you can play a five-minute game like Snap or the card version of Guess Who using the time you've saved. There are probably lots of these pockets of wasted time during the day, so take a look and see if you can whittle them down.

Make like Mary Poppins

Admittedly, we can't play all the time no matter how much time we free up. Sometimes, we have adult responsibilities like housework that can't be ignored. However, we can take a leaf out of Mary Poppins's book and include the children to make them fun.

Have a competition to see who can find the most rubbish for the bin or who can dust the most spindles on the stairs. If you need to do something non-child-friendly like bleaching, get them to sit nearby and challenge them to draw a picture in one minute.

It's amazing how much time can be made for play when you really take a fresh look at your day - why not give it a try?

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