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The Ingredients For A Happy Childhood

Sleep, cuddles, a good read... here's what to do to keep your kids happy

While there's no precise science to guaranteeing joy in childhood, (if only!) there are certain ingredients that help make up the recipe for a happy kid. We're talking unconditional love, creative play and books.

As parents, we bend over backwards to do whatever we can for our little ones, from making sure they eat nutritiously to getting a good night's sleep every evening.

In between, we experience countless good time moments with them along their journey, whether we're out cycling together, checking out the books in the library or splashing in a pool come summer time.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with Cadbury Dairy Milk Buttons to reveal the ingredients for a happy childhood – with scientific research to back them up. Just remember to stop and relish the moments of joy that can come from the most unexpected places when you're spending time with children.


Being active

A July 2015 Change4Life review from Public Health England found strong evidence to support the idea that physical activity in kids benefits cardio metabolic health; muscular strength; bone health and fitness – as well as promoting self-esteem, academic achievement, a better attention span and cognitive functioning. Phew.

In brief? Physical activity isn't just fun for kids and good for them physically, it's great for their developing minds, too. What's more, from walking the dog to cycling through the park, it's easy to integrate activity into your family lifestyle.

"Families who enjoy active time together not only tend to be healthier physically but also happier and more interested in the world around them than those who remain cooped up at home," says Dave Bowater, director of Islabikes.

"Of course, forcing children to do things is rarely a route to success, so it’s important to add a narrative to your activities.

"By making each bike ride or walk an adventure or challenge, it will positively affect your child’s imagination and sense of achievement. Even for shorter everyday activities – such as walking to school – it’s possible to introduce games or stories to keep children excited. All it needs is a little forethought."

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Play, play, play

While there is certainly an emphasis on classroom performance, more and more experts are speaking out against too much, too soon for children, and reminding us that free, unstructured play is crucial to a child's development, happiness and future success.

Yes, free play gives children the opportunity to tap into their imaginative sides and discover their interests. It also helps to develop communication, social and physical skills, improve cognitive abilities and aids with processing emotions.

Research from the University of Lethbridge, based on rats at play, has found that playfighting helps build a better brain, building new circuits in the prefrontal cortex and training the brain to navigate complex social interactions. Remember that next time you're invited to an imaginary tea party.

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Teach them emotional intelligence

A study from February 2015 published in the American Journal of Public Health found a connection between a child's social skills in reception and how well they did in early adulthood.

Those who shared and were helpful in reception were more likely to have graduated from university and work in full-time employment aged 25, while children who had difficulty with sharing, cooperating and listening at five were more likely to have substance abuse problems and to have dropped out of education.

So, yes, placing value on emotional intelligence from a young age and teaching children about how to behave around their peers is a huge gift you can give a child. As Kristin Schubert, program director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the research, says: "It's like a paradigm shift around what it means to be mentally well at an early age and how that dictates how life goes for you later on."

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Praise the effort, not the achievement

While most parents love the idea that they might be raising the next Beethoven, Serena Williams or Vanessa-Mae, ensuring that a kid is happy – and ultimately successful – isn't about encouraging perfection. It's about praising effort over results.

According to research in the book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents: "Parents who overemphasise achievement are more likely to have kids with high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse compared to other kids."

So, relax, breathe and hang that scribbled mess of a picture proudly on your fridge as if it were your very own Van Gogh. Your kid will thank you for it.

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Reading is fun(damental)

We've all heard how reading to your child can help improve their academic performance in later life, not to mention provide a wonderful opportunity for some parent-child bonding each day. Research also tells us that children who are familiar with books from a young age are better at concentrating, have higher attention spans and a better vocabulary than those who aren't.

The 1970 British Cohort Study, which has tracked over 17,000 people across the UK, discovered that children who frequently read aged 10 and more than once a week when they were 16 had higher test results than those who read less in maths. Maths?! It's true - scientists think a high reading ability can help children absorb new information in all subjects.

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Good-quality sleep

Many parents worry about a bad night's sleep, but when your little one is up all night, it's not just a stress for parents, but for kids as well.

Lots of scientific research supports the idea that sleep problems need to be sorted early on. From a 2012 study in US journal Pediatrics, which found that babies with sleep issues are several times to more likely to suffer from sleep problems as toddlers (compared with babies who sleep well), to research that found seven-year-old children with late or irregular bedtimes were more likely to have other unfavourable routines (missing breakfast, etc.), while girls with poor sleep patterns had lower reading, maths and spatial skills scores.

"Having a good night’s sleep will leave us refreshed, alert and ready to face the day. Conversely a bad night’s sleep will impact our concentration, mood, memory, energy levels, behaviour, appetite and our overall health and well-being," says Mandy Gurney, founder of the Millpond Sleep Clinic.

She recommends getting your tot into a routine; warm baths limited to a time of 10 minutes; a 'quiet hour' of no iPads or screens before bed time; dimmed lights and a story and cuddle for a restful night.