Why Children Need Both Care and Play in Their Lives

Section 1. What is Joy and Where Does it Come From?

Joy is a euphoric, neuro-bio-physiological experience that leads to many positive body, mood, and behavioral changes arising from neurochemical brain changes.

Joy comes from the experience of co-regulation within the context of shared relationships that provide trust, understanding, fun, and care.

When there is not enough love, joy, and hope in one’s life, there is no reason to seek the good sensations that come with being cared for or loved. When children experience toxic stress, the urge to seek positive feelings becomes under-active. The overwhelmed stress response system results in an absence of “feel good” seeking behaviors, compounding a sense of hopelessness (Panksepp & Biven, 2012). Jakk Panksepp (2010) calls mammalian feel-good seeking behaviors “anticipation eagerness,” which brings about feelings of excitement and gives us something to look forward to.

The positive emotional seeking process drives humans towards happy experiences, through the relationships that provide care, love, and play. Even just thinking about being loved and cared for—and about having fun with loved ones—is enough for a person to be rewarded with blissful feelings and healthy development. When children are loved and cared for, the positive feelings sourced by the seeking process fuel the brain’s reward system, causing the repetition of the behavior that feels so good.

The Brain’s Reward System Responds to Loving Care

The brain’s reward system works to capture the feel-good moments so that the experience, activity, interaction, or state can happen over and over again. It decides which experiences yield feelings like happy, calm, excited, and alive. The memory process of the brain remembers how to reproduce the same feelings again, resulting in an urge to seek the good feeling by returning to a pleasurable activity.

The brain’s reward system typically likes and seeks out the experience of being cared for. When humans receive care and nurturance, they are able to emotionally co-regulate, experiencing calm and euphoria, together. All mammals—both genders—have the innate drive to nurture their offspring, thus enhancing the resilience of the next generation (Panksepp, 2010).

Oxytocin: The Love Hormone

When a humans feel cared for, and know that someone has concern for their well-being, opioid activity in their brains relieves the feeling of pain (Panksepp, 2010). Thus a kiss or hug makes an injury seem to hurt less. The reverse is also true: Neglectful environments lead to profoundly painful experiences. (Chronic disconnection from loving care often results in the need to seek relief in some other way, such as with drugs or alcohol.)

High active states of loving care promote the release of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” (Panksepp, 2005, 2008, 2010; Dabrowska et al., 2011; Neumann & Landgraf, 2008 ). Oxytocin leads humans to fully enjoy every aspect of being loved. Without loving care, one cannot entirely feel safe or secure and cannot completely experience the healing benefits of joy.

The Importance of Play

In addition to being cared for, humans also have the need to play. According to Panksepp, play is the ancestral source of authentic social joy in all mammals. From a young age, children—and other mammals—engage in rough and tumble play, leading to empathetic behaviors such as laughter. This social form of play often presents itself as play-fighting, but it is actually one of the most joyous forms of play.

For children to naturally seek opportunities to play, their survival needs, such as hunger and thirst, must first be met. They must also have a sense of safety and security. When children do not have a safe, secure, and engaging environment in which moments of play can naturally emerge, negative states of emotion are triggered, such as anger, fear, and pain (Panksepp & Biven, 2012).

Children should play every day. Panksepp (2008) recommends that quality physical play should be implemented into the “daily social diet” of all children through grade school.

Infant-caregiver play is crucial, as a child’s early life is mostly made of social interactions, predominantly with caregivers. It is in these intense playful interactions that children begin to learn sounds; experience physical movements; and learn to notice and produce facial expressions, eye gestures, and gazing (Gordon, 2014).

Play at all ages should include activities that are unstructured, should involve physically adventurous aspects, and should be initiated at home by caregivers.

Care + Play = Joy

It is essential that children have both care and play in their lives so they can experience true, authentic joy. Empathy, nurturance, safety, and security are developed through the brain’s positive feeling systems. Joy moves caregivers and their children from anxiety to calmness, lifting vulnerability and enhancing social connection.

Section 2: The Benefits of Joyful Activity

Because joy is created by a combination of play and care, it is through shared activity that child and caregiver build emotional connection that leads to pleasure, and therefore better co-regulation and healthy brain development.

Social play is one important feature of joyful activity. It is the practice ground for developing executive functioning skills that are needed to build resilience (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2011). Executive function skills include planning, monitoring, regulating, and adapting to changing circumstances.

Building Healthy Brain Pathways

Joyful activity is instructive. From a young age, children learn how to have social interactions and develop an understanding of how the interactive world works. For example, “When I say ‘thank you,’ it makes Grandma smile.”

Play allows children to explore what is and is not permitted within their communities. It prompts them to initiate, maintain, terminate, and avoid interactions with others, setting them up to build healthy connections throughout their lives (Kestly, 2014).

Play also drives children to navigate social possibilities in an enjoyable manner, allowing them to learn the impact of their behavior and learn their behavioral limits, develop empathy, and become high-functioning social beings (Panksepp, 2010).

Just as healthy relationships are needed to facilitate play, play is also needed to learn how to have relationships, because it teaches children how to have and tolerate face-to-face interactions (Porges, 2011).

Repair During and After a Toxic Stress Response

Joyful activity can heal children and actively protect them from the adverse effects of negative experiences and toxic stress.

[From the book Joyful Together]
Photo by Eden Pictures

You may also like...