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Skills Building? Or Are They Already Built? ‘Unlocking’ vs Learning…


I’ve holidayed alone with my 8 year old before but this Easter I thought we’d have a stab at actually travelling… Nothing too exciting, but over a week we covered around 500 km as we hopped across three Spanish cities.

Adventure, yes. Relaxation, no.
However, in the less frantic windows of time where I wasn’t riddled with anxiety about losing my child, I was able to stand back and observe so much of what I talk about…

First, the innate desire to play. Not just with one dimensional toys with an intended purpose, but genuine playfulness.

And in the right environment, grown-ups are playful too; it was quite mesmerising watching several adults engaged in bubble chasing and bursting.
They weren’t playing with children. They were just playing, when they could be uninhibited enough to do so.  

And this actually isn’t so surprising, given that we are all born with a PLAY system (ref; Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience).

PLAY is just one of the 7 ’primitive emotional systems’ that are hard-wired into our deep survival brains, and which thus remain in place for life.

Hence, that’s just one reason why children need much more play in their diet than most get, especially in their education. Play is foundational to human development.

But why on earth is PLAY a ‘survival emotion’?

All mammals have the ‘PLAY’ system built in, and these kittens show us primitive play in action!
Their PLAY system is ensuring that they practise survival skills like hunting.

In our more evolved ancestors, such as primates, play is also important for learning about the social codes and hierarchies that ensure acceptance and belonging.
Because, inevitably, rejection and abandonment are a threat to our survival.


As humans grow up, we don’t tend to witness play behaviours as purely as in these kittens, because our survival brain is highly interactive with our more evolved and complex ‘social brain’, which isn’t hard-wired. But essentially we’re not just ‘born to play’, but ‘born with play to stay!’

Another of these primitive emotional systems I saw at work on our travels was FRUSTRATION.

Because it’s uncomfortable and often the predecessor to anger, it’s natural that we step in to manage our children’s frustration. We don’t want them to lose control.
But let’s try not to move into problem-solving territory too soon, because FRUSTRATION serves a neurodevelopmental purpose. How?

When a baby starts trying to reach out, their arms and hands are all over the place.
But control over their limbs is a skill they’ll soon need in order to stay alive; if that baby just gave up at the first hurdle, refused to try again, they wouldn’t survive.

Essentially, frustration is about mastery.
It’s a core component of resilience; the ability to persevere and solve problems, even in adversity.

Our kids may need help to handle it, they may not like the way that frustration feels.
But shooing it away can remove the opportunity for them to overcome hurdles, experiment with new ideas, learn from mistakes, refine skills, recover from any lapses in self-control and try again.

And when I was able to practice what I preach in Spain, my 8 year old reaped the benefits…

Firstly, his new toy aeroplane only wanted to nose-dive. He tried again and again and again. It was tedious.
But eventually it glided.

And then three little Spanish boys joined him in his play.
At that point I had to deal with my own frustration as my hope of relaxing in a nice tapas bar with a sangria was scuppered.

Instead I watched and waited as these four children found imperfect ways to overcome the language barrier. They eventually worked out negotiating and turn-taking etc.
And my son became teacher, demonstrating ‘the glide’.
It’s easy to think that they learned a lot from this experience. And in some ways, they did of course.

But much of this was already built in to their wiring before they were even born. I think it’s more accurate to describe these competencies, not so much being learned as unlocked.

Aren’t we so often caught up in ‘teaching’ our children; giving them the skills to grow up, to become independent, that we forget; or simply don’t notice; how much Mother Nature’s already done for them?


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