Relationships and Child Development

Key points

  • Loving, stable and responsive relationships are fundamental to your child’s development.
  • Through relationships, children learn how to think, understand, communicate, behave, express emotions and develop social skills.
  • Playing with your child strengthens your relationship and encourages your child to explore, observe, experiment and solve problems.

Why loving, nurturing relationships are important for child development

Children’s relationships shape the way they see the world and affect all areas of their development. Through relationships with parents, other family members and carers, children learn about their world.

That’s because relationships let children express themselves – a cry, a laugh, a question – and get something back – a cuddle, a smile, an answer. What children ‘get back’ gives them very important information about what the world is like and how to act in the world – how to think, understand, communicate, behave, show emotions and develop social skills.

For example, when your baby babbles and you respond in a warm, loving and gentle way, you’re helping your baby learn about communication, behaviour and emotions.

When you respond, you’re also making your child feel safe and secure, and building a strong relationship between the two of you. And when your child feels safe and attached to you, your child is more likely to have the confidence to explore their world.

Your relationships with others

It’s not just the relationship between you and your child that shapes development. It’s also your relationships with others.

The way you behave and communicate with other people – for example, your partner, family members, friends and carers – shows your child how to be and behave with others.

It also shows your child how other people will behave in return. If your child sees kind and respectful relationships around them, your child learns to be kind and respectful with others.

Why play is important for development and relationships
In the early years, your child’s main way of learning and developing is through play.

Play is fun for your child. It also gives your child an opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, solve problems and sometimes make mistakes.

Your relationship helps your child get the most out of play. That’s because your encouragement gives your child confidence to explore, experiment and make mistakes. Lots of time spent playing, talking, listening and interacting with you also helps your child learn key life skills, like communicating, thinking, solving problems, moving and being with other children and grown-ups.

And when you play with your child, it builds your relationship. Spending time playing together sends your child a simple message – you’re important to me. This message helps your child learn about who they are and where they fit in the world.

Play and relationships in action: the peekaboo example

A simple game of peekaboo is a great example of how relationships, play and time together help with all areas of child development.

When you play peekaboo with your baby, you hide your face behind your hands and pop out again. Your baby probably reaches out to you, giggles and smiles. Your baby’s saying, ‘Keep playing – this is fun!’ You keep going, and your baby is happy. But after a while, your baby might look away. That’s your baby’s way of saying, ‘Enough play for now’. You know it’s time to take a break.

This peekaboo example shows that your baby wants to play with you, which means your baby is attached to you. And attachment is a sign of healthy social and emotional development.

Also, when your baby squeals and reaches out to you to say, ‘Let’s play!’, this shows your baby developing language and gross motor skills. And when you respond, it encourages your baby to keep communicating with you.

Peekaboo helps with your baby’s thinking too. Your baby learns about what comes next when you disappear and then reappear.

And when you respond to your baby’s cues for more play or for a break, your baby understands that they can trust you. This helps your baby to feel safe, loved and secure.

Relationships: benefits for life

Warm and loving interactions between you and your child develop your child’s confidence, resilience and communication. Your child needs these skills later in life for working through problems, dealing with stress and forming healthy relationships with other people in adolescence and adulthood.

Strong attachments and relationships early in life also mean your child is more likely to have better mental health and fewer behaviour problems later.

By building a warm, positive and responsive relationship with your child now, you’re helping shape the adult your child will become and giving your child a strong foundation for the rest of their life.

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Playgroup NSW leads play-based programs and services for NSW families with children birth to school age, offering development, shared experiences, and family support, that results in active citizens and inclusive communities.