“What if I was to tell you that a game of peek-a-boo could change the world?”
If the right experiences and environment are not provided to the child, it impairs the child’s development. That is not to say that negative experiences and an environment cannot be overcome – as the brain is resilient and constantly forming new neural connections as well as pruning old ones – but it is much more difficult.
All this is to say that the first five years of life are critical to healthy development.
What do we do to make the most of this short but critical window of time?
Scientists call it “serve and return”, which is essentially responsive and positive caregiving. Think of it like a game of Ping-Pong. When a baby communicates with a cry, they are “serving” – when a caregiver responds by cooing, making eye contact, offering gentle physical interaction, or otherwise responding positively, they are “returning”.
If a child is consistently ignored or given negative or inappropriate responses by their caregivers, their brain development may be impaired and the stress response triggered. (The stress response also negatively impacts brain development!)
The key word is “consistently.”
We all know that a child cannot have 100% of our attention 100% of the time (nor would that be healthy!).
But if we are honest with ourselves, we also know we can do better.
- We can put our phones and laptops down (and away, where the notifications and emails cannot distract us)
- Educational toys, screen time and games do not take the place of interactions with loving and caring adults
- Extracurricular activities and after school programs are not a substitute for the cognitive development supported by interactions with loving and caring adults.
- We can use “car-time” to talk to, sing to or with, or interact with our children
- We can intentionally and consistently spend one-on-one time with our child (or with each of our children)
- We can make eye contact; we can get down to their level while listening to and talking with them; we can give more hugs and snuggles and goodnight kisses; we can give more high-fives and back pats and gentle wrestling-matches.
- We can notice and be interested in what interests our child (looking at what they are looking at, asking questions, expressing interest and curiosity—instead of saying things that are often a substitute for truly listening–“Hmm.” “Really?” “That’s interesting.”)
- We can engage our child’s curiosity by sharing knowledge and using specific vocabulary (for example, “Do you see those clouds? They are called cirrus clouds and are made up of ice crystals!”
- We can “sportscast” (narrate) what we are doing as we go about our housework or caring for our child. “I am cooking dinner right now. First, I’m chopping the onions and the carrots.” Or, “It’s bath time! I’m going to take off your clothes so that you can get into the tub! Now it’s time to use soap to scrub all the dirt away!”
- We can slow down and patiently wait for our children to form a response and reengage with us after we “return” their serve; to transition from one activity to another; to allow their minds to lead them.
- We can observe our children. “Returning” doesn’t always mean talking, which may actually draw our child’s attention to ourselves. It means noticing what a child is communicating with their words and actions.
- We can identify underlying causes of negative behavior. Instead of assuming our child’s negative behavior is from an ill-intent, we can ask ourselves, “Is my child hungry? Are they tired? Are they over-stimulated? Have I given them my undivided attention lately?”
As Molly Wright concluded, “Every moment together is an opportunity to connect, talk and play. Imagine the difference we could make if everyone everywhere did this. To us, the children, it’s so much more than a game. It’s our future.”