Play is what young mammals do when they feel safe and well. It’s one way they bond and learn, so lack of play is a good indicator that something is wrong. Play is a basic instinct and the right kind of play, which is endangered in modern society, is critical for optimum development: Lots of outdoor, independent, creative/free, and social play is our evolutionary baseline. Children need hours a day of free-play, much of it outdoors in nature.
Through social free play, children learn to be responsive to others—if you are not sensitive to your wrestling partner’s complaints about too much roughness, for example, your partner will stop playing with you. The playing child, then, has to learn to pick up the cues and then stop and shift to a different behavior—“executive functions” as scientists call them, that grow from experience. The child learns what “works” in the environment, both socially and with materials: "How resilient is that stick? What games can I invent with my playmates to test our skills? Can I climb to the top of this?" This is how a child exercises her creative thinking, tests cause and effect in the natural world, and learns what her body can do. She’s growing social skillsand, creativity as well as physical skills. All this leads to greater mental as well as physical health. Play is the important work of childhood.
How to Parent for Free Play
We can offer the best nurturing and enriching environment, but toxic overload can sabotage the positive outcomes we would expect. Today's children are being assaulted by a barrage of chemicals with little oversight and powerful industry lobbying.
"As citizens of this capitalist nation, we cannot rely on corporate-sponsored news media for the truth. We must source it from trustedindependent outlets, informed experts, and even going to the available science, ourselves. It is time to reclaim our health, and that of our families, once and for all. When we outsource our native wisdom, our belief in the fundamental strength of our minds and bodies, to corporations whose primary fiduciary responsibility is to their shareholders, we are sacrificing ourselves, and our children. Women and children are the sheep being led off the ledge. I have written about a known 4250% increase in fetal demise during the 2009/10 flu season, about Gardasil killing healthy girls across the globe, fear mongering about SIDS that is actually caused by a visit to the pediatrician, and of the corruption of an infant’s birthday by the Hepatitis B vaccine." ~ Kelly Brogan, M.D. (more links to research below).
To date, the EPA has only reviewed a few hundred chemicals for safety. There are more than 80,000 chemicals currently being used in consumer products that the federal government and consumers know little to nothing about. Industry doesn’t have to test chemicals for safety before they go on the market.
According to the CDC, food allergies in children increased by about 50% between 1997 and 2011. Asthma rates have also been on the rise, withan increase of 28% between 2001 and 2011. And childhood cancer rates have been increasing since the 1970s. The National Institutes of Health reported in 1996 that the incidence of childhood cancer had increased by 10% between 1973 and 1991, and there is an inverse correlation between increases in cancer rates and age at diagnosis; the largest rise (54 percent) occurred in children diagnosed before their first birthday. “
As Dr. Brogan so passionately states, it's up to us to take charge of our kids' exposure to toxic chemicals as well as toxic experiences. EPI will spotlight the unbiased science so parents can make informed decisions to best protect their children.
Practice Protective Parenting
Seeking the nearly constant physical presence of a caregiver is an instinct with which babies are born and it only diminishes partially and gradually throughout childhood. When cultural messages urge parents to violate this natural need, with ideologies that emphasize "toughening-up," for example, it causes developmental problems. Physiologically, the responsive presence of a loving parent helps the child build properly functioning physiology (e.g., breathing, heart rate, endocrine system development) and learn to self-regulate, little by little. The brain develops rapidly during the first 5 years of life so any extensive or intense distress is harmful and undermines growth.
For example, cortisol is toxic at high levels, which can occur with high stress, dissolving synapses (brain cell connections) and redirecting energy toward self-preservation instead of growth. The stress response system is one of many systems that is setting its parameters and thresholds in early life. When a child is made deeply distressed regularly, as is required by many popular parenting methods, it will set this and other systems to be highly sensitive, leading to a disposition to be easily distressed (or emotionally detached) for life.
How to practice companionship care:
Parents today are overwhelmed, exhausted, and under-supported as they struggle with the unanticipated needs of young children. The difference between what is needed and what parents can manage on their own can be painful, as evidenced by postpartum rates of depression and anxiety (in mothers and fathers). Human history offers insight into the remedy: community care.
Mothers shouldn't be isolated with their babies. They should have someone around to lend a hand—partner, baby’s grandparent, older siblings, or neighbors, when they need a break. Parents need a safety net of caregivers who also cares about and knows how to emotionallyregulate the their child's emotional states. This model of multiple mutually-responsive caregivers, or what scientists call “alloparenting,” is critical to optimal child development. Anthropologically speaking, humans are designed for alloparenting. Raising a baby within an isolated nuclear family is biologically unnatural. That’s why it’s so hard.
In studies of small-band-hunter-gatherer societies, half the time alloparents were caring for a baby, but the mother was nearby, so if the baby became distressed, couldn’t get to sleep or needed to nurse, mom could step in. Toddlers and older children continue to be seen as children of thecommunity rather than just as children of their parents. Elders, young adults, and experienced parents are all invaluable teaching resources as well, for children of all ages. This community sort of environment allows a child to become more comfortable away from mom while also developing a secure attachment, because mom is alwaysthere when she is needed.
How to Give Care within a Community
The Five ENI Developmental Baselines
Thanks to recent advancements in neurobiology, we know much more about how affectionate touch influences a child’s development. For example, babies cannot learn to self-regulate well without the physical closeness andcontact of the parent. A variety of systems are influenced by caregiver touch as they set-up in babyhood. In fact, affection itself—expressed through touch—is one of the biggest influences on your baby’s genetic code. There are critical windows for gene activation that will only turn on with adequate affectionate touch.
Touch promotes attachment and fuels a number of processes that cause your child's brain to grow. This is why babies who are held more perform better on cognitive tests in years to come. Since this is a mammalian phenomenon, we get our first glimpse of these powerful effects from studies of other mammals. In this informative scientific field, high nurturing is measured by one thing: how much animal mothers lick and groom their pups. Through decades of animal research, higher levels of “lick and groom behaviors” consistently correlate with a plethora of better developmental results for offspring. Our babies are no different in this regard. This human equivalent of nuzzling, kissing, caressing, and cuddling our babies is the pinnacle of parental instinct.
Close physical contact stimulates growth hormones as it relieves stress. Amazingly, a parent’s loving touch almost immediately reduces pain, as pediatricians who let moms nurse through shots know well. Once we see touch as a nutrient, like food, we understand our babies’ needs more profoundly, like one reason babies wake in the night—they literally need a dose of nourishing touch to grow optimally, both mentally and physically.
How to Practice Nurturing Touch: