It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how much Western views of childhood have shifted over the last two centuries. During the Industrial Revolution, children worked long hours in factories, were forced up chimneys, and received little education. Campaigners worked hard to change these situations. In the 20thcentury, efforts focused on ending corporal punishment in schools and homes, and highlighting the neglect unintentionally inflicted by standard policies in hospitals and residential care. In the 21st century, we find ourselves tackling poverty, mental health concerns, the rise of digital technology and the loss of outdoor play. This brief history serves as a reminder of just how much children’s development is shaped by the society into which they are born and by the beliefs of the adults around them. Western culture has too often overlooked or misunderstood children’s needs. Recent scientific discoveries now provide us with a pretty clear story: In order to thrive, children need stable, emotionally attuned relationships, along with lots and lots of play. If children do encounter adverse circumstances – and evidence shows that way too many of them do – then these are the two factors that will most guard against adversity turning toxic, leaving lifelong consequences for their health and well-being.
Here are some of the discoveries scientists have made about the importance of connection and play during childhood:
- Play with peers shapes children’s brain development – so schools should be sure to make lots of time for it
- Children who experience toxic levels of stress, especially in the absence of an adult to buffer that stress, are at greater risk of poor adult health problems
- Children’s behaviour improves when parents spend less time on mobile phones – because children don’t have to work so hard to get their attention
Scientific insights into how children view their world are fascinating. When we are brave enough to get really curious, we realise just how much their development is shaped by the circumstances we provide for them. Bravery also lets us see that our culture hasn’t always done a great job at meeting their needs, because sometimes we simply haven’t understood what those were. It is a hopeful sign that the science of trauma and adverse childhood experiences is generating mounting public attention to children’s biological needs for relationships and play. We have a chance for a kinder, more emotionally attuned world. Everyone who spends any time at all with children, from parents to childcare staff to teachers to shop owners, benefits from understanding this information. Anyone who was ever once, a long time ago, a child themself does too.
Here’s one of our favourite videos exploring children’s need for connection in a school setting: