The Joy of Goo and Big Red buses!
21st February 2023
Guest blog by Ben Kingston-Hughes, Inspired Children
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You’ve probably all seen a bus before. Most of us, if we are honest, are not that impressed by buses having seen hundreds if not thousands over the course of our lives. Sometimes though, we need to try to see the world with the eyes of a child.
Imagine a young child seeing a big red bus for the first time. Imagine just how enormous the bus would seem to the child, how noisy its engine and how the smell of diesel fills the air as it thunders past. No fire breathing dragon from stories could ever be so magnificent and awe inspiring.
Yet as an adult we hurry the child away because we are late, it is raining and we no longer believe in dragons. Our adult tendency to take the magical and make it mundane is the opposite of the child’s innate sense of joy at the unknown, the new and the amazing.
A sensory buffet
You will have noticed I did not just describe how the bus looked but also how it smelled and the noise it made. There would also be the feeling of the vibrations as it rumbled past. This is because to children the world is a sensory buffet and their senses are constantly alive and questing for information. For adults, sight is our primary sense with sound a close second, but young children are much more keyed into their other senses. Babies will try to put anything they can into their mouths because taste is an important way in which they explore their world. The sense of touch is also a key exploratory behaviour hence the fact that young children touch everything, squish everything and stick their fingers in everything.
The Joy of Exploration
The joy of finding out about the world, of exploring and discovering new sights, sounds, tastes, feelings and smells is the very essence of sensory play.
What children are doing when they make those sensory explorations is fundamentally exploring and learning about their world. They are also making vital connections and building up the experiences that help them to understand their own place in the world and how to navigate it safely.
I explored the concept of curiosity in my previous book. According to Jaak Panksepp, curiosity is a limbic system response in the same part of the brain as food and sex and sleep. This means it floods the brain with a whole range of biochemicals in exactly the same way as when we eat cake.
In fact, as taste is a primary exploratory system, eating cake also counts as sensory play. Remember as adults we have a solemn duty to give our children positive experiences of childhood which means copious amounts of research. This means you should go and eat some cake right now, purely as research into sensory play.
Now that you’ve finished your cake. Activating the curiosity system floods the brain with positive biochemicals, makes the child feel amazing and ensures the behaviour is repeated so the child better understands their world. Many of the biochemicals associated with this part of the brain are addictive (Opioids, Benzodiazepines) which means the child craves sensory stimulation. This means that any learning opportunity that stimulates the basic curiosity system also leads to the child wanting more of that learning. So the simple joy of exploring with each of the senses is profoundly important for the child’s emotional well-being but also impacts on their innate desire for learning. These experiences are also incredibly neurologically rich. Once again the brain can only access the world through the senses. Or more accurately the world can only effect the brain through the senses. This means that every bit of experiential brain development is reliant on the senses because it cannot take place in any other way. Play that stimulates multiple senses, activating the curiosity system is therefore a key way in which children grow their brains.
Foraging for sticks
The limbic system is sometimes called the paleo mammalian cortex or simply the mammal brain because it is shared with all mammals. This part of the brain is arguably about 200,000,000 years old and you can easily see the parallels between how human children play and explore and how dogs, cats, rats and mice play and explore. With the exception of humans this is pretty much as far as it goes. The simple joy of a dog finding a particularly interesting stick or smelling a particularly unpleasant smell is as far as animals take this primitive system.
The smartest monkey
In humans there is more though. There is a whole world of curiosity that transcends the primitive parts of our brain and unlocks the uniquely human and very special parts of our brain.
There is a world of difference between sticking a crayon in your mouth because you like the taste and feel of it, and wanting to know the names of every dinosaur and or tank engine because you are fascinated by dinosaurs and tank engines. The conscious, self-aware part of our brain which finds facts, figures and concepts fascinating is far from the primitive instinctive limbic system. Let’s face it, our dogs and cats are never mesmerised by a beautiful sunset or stare at the sky imagining pictures in the clouds.
You can see this conscious curiosity in your children. I quite often hide resources such as shiny rocks, pebbles and fossils for young children to “discover”. All mammals explore and forage and children will love hunting for the interesting items and resources in the same way. A dog will find and bring back random items just as a human child does. The difference is that only a human child starts to categorise and quantify the exploratory objects. A child will bring back one random white rock, for instance and then start hunting for other white rocks. Or when they bring a selection of rocks back they will begin to sort and quantify, exploring the similarities and differences between the items and making connections. This unique behaviour is the conscious aspect of curiosity in action, the capacity of humans to find things stimulating not just on an instinctive level but on a conscious one.
So the next time you watch an interesting documentary, it is the uniquely human part of you brain that is stimulated. If you are eating cake at the same time then your limbic system will also be active. If it happens to be a documentary about cake then it is a double whammy.
A broad range of experiences
Working with children we need to provide the wonderful instinctive sensory explorations and messy play that creates a limbic system response. We also need to feed the innate and uniquely human aspect of curiosity that makes children fascinated in finding out about their world on a conscious level. The human desire to make connections between different things and concepts gives a sense of achievement and activates the reward system, flooding the brain with Dopamine. In short, finding out something that genuinely interests us makes us happy and allows us to make increasingly complex connections. Ultimately it is these connections that expand human knowledge. However, if the child explores something new and surprising the response is even more powerful.
What’s in the box
Working with vulnerable children I occasionally receive donations from companies. Imagine my excitement when on the morning before a visit to a school I received a cardboard box full of den making material. I did not have time to open the box so just shoved it in the van and set off for the session. At the beginning of the session, which was working with children struggling with low confidence, I handed the children the box to see what was inside.
I cannot describe the infectious excitement which occurred as the children opened up the box and pulled out the brightly coloured materials one by one. Even though I already had a rough idea of what was in the box I became more and more thrilled by each shiny bit of material as the children , “oohed” and “aahed” as if watching the most entrancing firework display.
The sad fact is that it would never have occurred to me to give the children the unopened box if I had not been so short of time in the morning. I would have unpacked the material myself and put it in the den making kit bag ready for the children. This joy of discovery simply would not have happened.
So it turns out that there is potentially a biochemical reason for this joy of discovery. Dopamine production is increased when we experience surprising or unexpected happiness. The underconfident children who were entranced by the succession of shiny bits of material, had potentially experienced increased dopamine production because the experience was unexpected. This brings us right back to awe and wonder as intrinsically important, not merely for learning and development but because they increase the production of dopamine and are a key component of joy.
Awe and Wonder
Awe and wonder is crucial to the life experiences of a child. Put simply, awe and wonder is the joy at discovering the innate amazingness in a child’s world, whether this is a big red bus or seeing a rainbow for the first time. It is vitally important that we not only support our children to experience this amazingness but also recognise just how special things can be if we allow children to experience the world without the preconceptions and prejudices of adulthood.
Case in point is a rainy day. Watching families in the rain you will often see the three year old looking up with joy and experiencing the rain on their faces. Chances are their carers will be frowning and hurrying along expressing the frustration and stress of a rainy day. Eventually the child will begin to see the rain as adults do which is an unpleasant inconvenience rather than the genuine miracle it truly is.
So let’s look at the world through the eyes of a child and see a world where everything is new and miracles happen every day. Let’s imagine a world where buses are dragons and rainbows are magical, mud is amazing and rain is miraculous. Let’s put our adult preconceptions on hold and support our children to experience awe, wonder and joy. Oh and let’s eat more cake.
Draft Extract from “Untitled Book About Joy” due for publication end of 2023 by Ben Kingston-Hughes. Ben’s previous book, “A Very Unusual Journey into Play” is out now. Note – this content may differ from the published work due to the editing process.
Meet Ben Kingston-Hughes at Childcare & Education Expo London 2023 and don’t miss out on his free interactive workshop taking place on the Friday, 3rd March!
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