THE SCIENCE BEHIND HOW
HOLIDAYS MAKE YOUR CHILD
HAPPIER and Smarter
Words by Dr Margot Sunderland
As adults, we countdown to our summer holidays to recharge our batteries. But they can also be a profoundly beneficial time for children. Parents are focused not on work, but on play, thereby giving their children the prized gift of time.
Dad or Mum, building sandcastles, playing badminton on the beach, jumping over waves. It seems like fun, but it’s also “attachment play”, and it’s vital for bonding. Attachment play also enhances self-esteem, sending a child the psychological message: “You have my full attention. I delight in you. I delight in being with you.”
- Two-thirds of conversations between parent and child are about daily routine (Elizabeth Buie, TES).
- 65 per cent of parents say they only play occasionally with their children.
- One in six fathers say they do not know how to play with their child and a third say they simply don’t have the time to play (Parent-Play survey, Playmobil UK).
- Only a quarter of children say they talk to parents more than once a week about something that matters (Child of Our Time).
- We worry about our physical health but we need to pay just as much attention to relationship health within the family. And, of course, research shows that relationship health is vital for physical health (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015).
What is less widely known is that holidays can also advance brain development in children. This is because on a family holiday you are exercising two genetically ingrained systems deep in the brain’s limbic area, which can all too easily be “unexercised” in the home. These are the PLAY system and the SEEKING system (Panksepp 2016).
The brain’s PLAY system is exercised every time you bury your child’s feet in the sand, tickle them on the pool lounger, or take them for a ride on your back. The brain’s SEEKING system is exercised each time you go exploring together: the forest, the beach, a hidden gem of a village.
These brain systems were discovered by Professor Jaak Panksepp, a world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University. Once your family holiday experiences activate these systems in your brain and your children’s brains, they trigger well-being neurochemicals including opioids, oxytocin and dopamine. Panksepp calls them “nature’s gift to us”. They reduce stress and activate warm, generous feelings towards each other and a lovely sense that all is well in the world. With all the anti-stress aspects of these systems firing, family members get to emotionally refuel.
“We can choose activities and pursuits that release the oxytocin stored in our own inner medical cabinet…We have this wonderful healing substance inside us and need only to learn the many ways we can draw upon it,” Panksepp explains.
The amazing thing is that these systems are like muscles: the more you use them, the more they become part of your personality. Or, as the neuroscientist Bruce Perry puts it: “Emotional states become personality traits” (Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, Neuroscientist).
So when you take your child on a holiday, you are supporting their explorative urge (SEEKING system) a vital resource for living life well, and their capacity to play (PLAY system). In adulthood, this translates into the ability to play with ideas, essential, for example, to the successful entrepreneur.
Really using the brain’s PLAY and SEEKING systems well, as often happens on a family holiday, brings about brain growth and maturation in the frontal lobes, the very part of the brain involved in cognitive functioning, social intelligence and well-focused, goal-directed behaviours that may last a lifetime (Panksepp, 2015; Burgdorf et al, 2010).
Building Concentration Skills
But what about being outside, a key aspect of many family holidays? Research has revealed improvements in a child’s attention and concentration levels after being in nature for only 20 minutes. Green-play settings were found to be as good as, or better than, medication for children with ADHD.
There is also evidence that a walk together in green space calms the body, lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels and even cholesterol – so parents and grandparents stand to benefit, too (Roe et al, 2013).
Is there a relationship between holidays and IQ?
An “enriched” environment offers new experiences that are are strong in combined social, physical, cognitive and sensory interaction (Hannan 2014). Think: family together in the pool; walking together through the forest; touching long tall grasses waving in the wind; toasting marshmallows on campfire; hanging out together under warm sun, feeling sand between the toes. As Nietzsche put it: “ All good things have something lazy about them and lie like cows in the meadow.”
Enriched environments turn on the genetic expression of key “brain fertilisers” in the frontal lobes, enhancing executive functions such as stress regulation, attention, concentration, good planning and ability to learn, also improving physical and mental health. The brain fertilisers triggered in enriched environments are also associated with higher IQ in children (Gunnell 2005). So, spend time exploring together in a new space, and you’re making your child smarter.
An investment in your child’s brain
So if you are choosing between buying your child a tablet or taking them on a family holiday, consider the profound effects on bonding and brain development; there is no competition.