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Early Years

Written by Keryn O’Neill MA, PGCertEdPsych, Knowledge Manager

The early years are a particularly important time in development. Early experiences interact with genes to influence our children’s development. While the science behind this is complex, the day-to-day reality boils down to some simple things. You’re probably already doing many of them, sometimes without realising their significance.

This article explores a few of the many things that your tamariki are learning as you go about daily life together. Let’s take supermarket shopping as an example.

Some days, leaving the supermarket with the groceries you need, your eftpos transaction accepted, and you and your child intact, feels worthy of a Nobel prize. Or at least a nice medal. But, these ordinary, and let’s be honest less than exciting, routines in our lives are filled with rich opportunities for our tamariki and their development.

What might your tamariki be learning as you go about getting your groceries together?

Communication Opportunities

When your baby or toddler is sitting in the front of trolley facing you there are so many opportunities for communication between you. In this position it’s easy to notice what baby is looking at, or pointing to. When they’re very young, this is how our pēpi communicate with us. A lack of words does not mean they can’t ‘talk’ to you. Are they watching as you put the kūmara in the trolley? Perhaps they want a closer look, to touch the skin, or feel the weight of the kūmara. You can talk with them about what you’re looking at; “Oh look! There are some bananas. We need bananas.” Pēpi is never too young to benefit from you talking with them.

There are endlessly rich language opportunities to be found as you go up and down the aisles. So many different colours, shapes, smells, sounds and temperature to notice and talk about. Which of these seem to interest your tamaiti?

Older tamariki might be interested in letters or counting, or discussing which fruit and veggies grow on trees or in the ground.

These ‘back & forth’ chats, sometimes called ‘serve & return’ like a game of tennis or ping pong, provide strong support for children’s development; both their language development, and also the strength of their relationships with parents and whānau.

Relationship opportunities

Of all the fascinating things to look at in the supermarket, guess what’s top of your child’s list? Yes, it’s you! Every time you notice and answer baby’s smile, pointing, babbling, or talking, or you talk, touch or look lovingly at them, you are growing the connection between you, which is a super-important foundation for their development in so many areas.

When pēpi drops the dish brush and Dad picks it up, over & over again, while waiting in the queue, what else is going on here? Dad and pēpi are sharing what’s known as ‘joint attention’; they’re both paying attention to the same thing, and by responding Dad is clearly indicating to baby that what she’s doing matters to him.

Does this mean it needs to happen all the time? No. You’d be there all day and your frozen veg would melt. It might only take a few seconds. Just know that all those little moments really do add up in big ways.

Contribution & control

Two of the ingredients that we know help children develop resilience are having a sense of control, and the ability to contribute.

When tamariki are offered simple choices, “berry or apricot yoghurt?” or “apples or pears”, they feel involved in what’s happening, and get to practise making decisions. Limited choices like these, between two options which are both available, are more successful than open-ended questions, such as “What shall we get for lunch?”, as their answer might be something they can’t have. This helps them have a sense of control over themselves and their environment in healthy ways. While there are no guarantees, offering tamariki simple choices where possible, might just make it easier to handle the situations where they don’t get to choose. (“I know it looks yummy, but we aren’t having ice-cream for lunch”).

Holding the shopping list, carrying (non-breakable!) items, and putting the groceries on the counter are some of the many ways in which tamariki can contribute. Many will enjoy their ‘helper’ role and the sense of satisfaction this brings. Their help may take a little longer, but being more active participants in the shopping is helping build many skills. They usually love feeling that they are sharing a real-life task with you.

Handling stress and managing feelings

As anyone who’s ever shopped with tamariki knows, things don’t always go smoothly. While we might prefer things went according to plan, there are important learning opportunities available in these situations too.

When your pēpi or tamaiti has become tired, squabbled with their brother or sister or is distressed at the sight of lollies they can’t have, this can be stressful for them. They have feelings that they need support to handle.

When they feel understood and supported in these stressful situations, it’s building their ability to handle their own range of feelings as they grow, sometimes called self-regulation. It’s teaching tamariki that when they need support, someone will be there for them. They also learn that feelings come and then go.

If you perhaps found the situation stressful and didn’t offer the support your child needed at the time, as happens to all of us, but make efforts to put things right, tamariki learn that relationships aren’t perfect and that mistakes can be repaired. A big cuddle once you are home and the shopping has been put away, can help to “repair” the relationship.


Next time you’re out and about, remember that as you tick items off your shopping list, you’re probably also ticking off lots of skills and learning for your tamaiti too.

Of course, grocery shopping is not the only time these opportunities exist. Other every day activities – hanging out washing, peeling potatoes, washing the dog – are also a rich source of learning, and without any toys, devices or additional cost required.

Glossary of Māori terms:

Pēpi – baby, infant 
Tamaiti – child
Tamariki – children
Whānau – extended family

This article was first published in Brainwave Review, Issue 32, Spring 2020