Relationships and environments that are safe, stable, and nurturing are essential for children and families to thrive. To prevent adverse childhood experiences and create positive childhood experiences, these relationships and environments are essential.
Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) are experiences during childhood that promote safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments. PCEs can help children develop a sense of belonging, connectedness, and build resilience (CDC, 2022).
The opposite of PCEs are ACEs what we know as Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACEs are pervasive and dangerous affecting all peoples and cultures. Trauma during childhood can negatively impact a child's brain development, resulting in potentially devastating mental and physical health outcomes throughout their lives. There are studies showing that childhood adversity can lead to alcoholism, suicide, and diabetes, but it's comforting to know that the opposite is also true. Find your ACEs score here.
Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) are the kinds of activities and experiences that enhance a child’s life, resulting in successful mental and physical health outcomes. In a recent study cited by Contemporary Pediatrics, "positive childhood experiences may counteract the damaging effects of adverse experiences." PCEs make childhood such a joy, a time of growth, change, exploration, and undiluted happiness.
Which interactions make the most effective PCEs, and how can we provide these kinds of uplifting, fortifying experiences to our children?
Setting Up Buffers
Adults play the most significant role in childhood happiness. Caregivers, parents, teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults send the most time with children. As such, they are involved in helping children feel safe in their environments (at home, at school, or on the playing field). They support children and provide them a listening ear during difficult times.
Children thrive when they are provided with a clear structure, age-appropriate games and entertainment, security, and love and acceptance from trusted adults. When children grow up in such an environment, they learn the skills they will need to be happy, healthy adults and productive citizens.
Obviously, this is the "dream childhood" that many (if not most) children throughout the world will never experience.Families do not have to be perfect for children to have positive childhood experiences. Children can learn to be resilient in the home and community as long as they have buffers against negative or traumatic experiences. Children's lives can be transformed by just one positive adult influence, according to studies. Regardless of the circumstances in a child's life, each of us can provide positivity, solid life lessons, stimulating experiences, and fun and laughter.
Play, what is it and why does it matter?
Our first question should be why do children play? Children learn countless lessons through play, which prepares them for many adult roles. For example, coloring books teach physical dexterity. You will notice that as a child grows, their ability to control crayons and pens increases. As they become more adept at coloring, they can stay within the lines. Play also forces children to engage with other children, which necessitates problem-solving. To play with other children, children have to negotiate social roles, compromise on their wants, and advocate for themselves. When problems arise, social play forces their brains to problem-solve so that they can keep playing. Children want to keep playing, so they're motivated to problem-solve.
Children engage in imaginative play and pretend play to make sense of their world. Think about it. It's not like they can sit down and journal about their feelings, or really have the vocabulary to identify and talk about them in the ways that adults do. So, how do they process their emotions and experiences? Children often use figurines or toys to understand the world around them, work out relationships, recreate situations they have seen or experienced, or simply expand their imaginations to create new worlds. Watching children play can give us insight into what is bothering or upsetting them, or if there are issues that they seem to have trouble resolving.
The effect of screen time on play
Most of us remember some of our favorite toys growing up. What was yours? Do you remember riding bikes, playing with a Furby, Mr. Potato Head, or a rubik's cube? When you thought about your favorite childhood toy, did you smile? How come?
Playfulness is a valuable tool for children's happiness. It is often the goal and objective of childhood and one we forget to pursue as adults. Many of the activities we engage in as adults, such as sports, games, practical jokes, or general silliness, are attempts to reconnect with childhood freedoms and exhilaration. But, doesn't it seem like the type of "play" our children participate in has changed from the way you played as a child? Yes, it has!
Think about what you did as a child and what you see your children doing today.
Did you play outside more?
Did you try to use your imagination to entertain yourself and your buddies?
How about how much time did you spend on a screen?
Scientists, child development experts, and pediatricians have been saying for some time: too much screen time can harm your child's health. Screen time isn't necessarily harmful, but it takes away from other activities your children need to do like going outside, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, most American children spend about 5 to 8 hourson screens each day.
One recent activity we saw and loved was a mom who helped manage her kids screen time by providing them with "time tokens." Based on age-appropriate limits, and other family expectations (such as completion of homework or chores) the children would earn tokens. Tokens could then be redeemed for 15, 30 minutes or an hour of screen time. By doing this, children felt empowered and had control over when and how they used their screen time, while still being protected.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, children's screen time has skyrocketed. A vague concern before, it has now become a serious threat to mental health. Children are now often home-schooled remotely and rely on screens for entertainment, such as watching TV or playing video games, at night. “Children’s brains are not designed to grow and develop from screens,” explains Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Health and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. “The brain is designed to develop from human interaction and exploration of the natural environment.” How do we prevent the loss of opportunities children have as social distancing prevents them from playing naturally with other children as they used to? What is the antidote to screen time?
Even though play seems to have changed over generations, young children still love the same things we did as children — drawing, coloring, playing with toys, acting out adventures with figurines, dressing up, conducting puppet shows, and reading books (especially with mom and dad when they're young). Setting up "play stations" in your home, regularly reading with your children, and engaging in play pretend helps their brains grow!
If you feel your children are spending too much time on screens, there are plenty of ways to limit that time. Screen time and video games seem like quick-fix solutions to keep children entertained, but even a small effort in the direction of real-life play will benefit your child. Remember, your children love you, look up to you, and are hungry for time with you. Working from home and homeschooling your kids may make this difficult, but even a half hour spent reading a book together at bedtime will hold your child's attention and create memories of love.
Developing a sense of self
Play also enables adults to identify skills in a child that are unique to them and which will become a part of their identity as they grow up. Through play, adults can watch and observe a child's strengths and weaknesses and provide guidance to help them reach their full potential. Playtime also helps build self-confidence and develop a sense of responsibility. Additionally, playtime allows children to explore their creativity and imagination which can lead to improved problem-solving skills. It also teaches them how to communicate effectively with others.
Ensuring children reach developmental milestones
Play is very revealing in other ways. Children develop at different rates, but healthcare professionals look for certain developmental milestones to determine if a child is meeting growth goals on time. The degree of skill with which a child can complete simple tasks defines these milestones. By 18 months of age, a child should be able to pretend to feed a doll, for example. A child should be able to perform somersaults and sing by age five. Children's dexterity and physicality, as well as their social interactions with other children during play, can help pediatricians, teachers, and other experts determine if they are behind developmentally. To help children learn problem-solving skills, mediation skills, cooperation skills, and general kindness and sharing skills, you don't have to be an expert.
Set up play stations (no, not the electronic kind)
Set up play kits or play stations around your home, classroom, or school. These can look like bookshelves low to the ground for your children to access, cubbies with a few rotating toys, sensory bin tables, or baggies with specific activities set up. Allow your kids to engage with items like books, games, toys, crayons, coloring books, figurines, playdough, and different textured materials. You might try to ensure your child has objects available that stimulate all 5 senses! This will help their brain grow.
If you would like assistance with ideas or ways to bring more play into your kids' or your families life, we would love to work with you. We provide professional therapeutic services for children and families who have experienced trauma or who need mental health assistance. As it turns out, many of the benefits we provide as professionals can be duplicated on a much simpler level in your home. Spend some time playing with your children every day, saving them from an hour of screen time, and rekindling the joy, fun, and laughter of childhood. We could all benefit from a little more childish silliness and laughter right now.