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Whanau Travis Wetlands

The Science Behind Growing Happy Kids

How can we grow great minds and great people? Find out more about children's brain development.

Brain development and tamariki wellbeing

There’s heaps of evidence that a loving, caring and stimulating environment grows great brains, and great people. In 2014 UNICEF brought together 16 neuroscientists to discuss the influence of early experience on brain development and function. It wasn’t just a talkfest – these discussions led to three key findings:

1. The relationship between genes and environment is closer than we ever imagined. Genes predict our brain development but it is experience that sculpts it. The more experiences and opportunities our brain gets to grow, the better. In other words – the environment kids grow up in really matters

2. The brain is complex – it develops overtime and is connected to every part our bodies. Different regions of the brain have distinct roles, and they don’t all develop at once. Our experiences shape how our brains develop.

3. Early experiences matter. While brain development can continue through life, it occurs most quickly before birth and through early childhood. In the first years of life neurons in our brains form new connections at the astounding rate of 700-1000 per second – a pace that is not repeated again.

Ways you can help

Hug (a lot)

Research shows that there’s a lot to be said for a simple hug. Hugs can contribute to:

  • Security - we are simply wired to find touch reassuring
  • Positive Feelings - we release the hormone oxytocin when touched, which boosts feelings of attachment, connection, trust, and intimacy.
  • Better Health - when we are touched our heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the harmful stress hormone cortisol are lowered
  • Freedom –giving someone a hug is something we can choose to do (that’s empowerment right there!)

Read more about the benefits of hugs.

Have kai with the whānau

Studies indicate manaakitanga has lots of benefits:

  • Healthier kids- when families eat together, young tamariki are more likely to prefer healthy meals and learn healthy eating habits.
  • Smarter kids- Scientists have found that when parents talk with their children during meal-times, the child is more likely to know and use more words.
  • Safer kids - eating together regularly seems to be helpful in recognising bullying and addressing it.
  • Happier kids - research spanning nearly 5000 teenagers has shown that when they eat with their parents regularly, they are more likely to be emotionally strong and have better mental health.
  • The moderation effect - for whānau with teenage children, regular family meals (usually dinners) are associated with reduced incidence of drug and alcohol use by the teens.
  • Connected kids - parents and children who ate regular family dinners seem to share a better relationship.
  • They are more honest and open with each other, and the parents are more likely to know what is happening in the child’s life.
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Talk (and listen)

Talking and listening to children does lots of important things. It improves your bond with them, and encourages them to listen to you. It helps them to form relationships and to build self-esteem.

Top tips for talking and listening:

  • Set aside time for talking and listening to each other.
  • Listen to your children when they want to talk, have strong feelings or have a problem.
  • Be open to talking about all kinds of feelings, including anger, joy, frustration, fear and anxiety. Talking about feeling angry is different from getting angry, though. Learning the difference is an important step for a child learning to communicate.
  • Watch your child’s facial expression and body language. Listening isn’t just about hearing words, but also trying to understand what’s behind those words.
  • To let your child know you’re listening, and make sure you’ve really understood, repeat back what your child has said and make lots of eye contact.
  • Show your interest by saying such things as, ‘Tell me more about ...’, ‘Really!’ and ‘Go on ...’. Ask children what they feel about the things they’re telling you about.
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Play together

Playing isn’t just something for kids – it’s good for all of us. And playing with people you love is even better! Whether it’s dusting off your old Connect Four set, playing a bit of Backyard Cricket, or Tū Kōhatu (knuckle bones), playing together as a whanau helps build healthy, strong relationships.

If you’re looking for inspiration check out the awesome wellbeing activities for kids aged 5-12 at Sparklers At Home, or for younger tamariki, try Tiny Adventures. Both contain loads of simple, fun activities designed to build self-esteem and resilience while fostering brain development.

All Right? have also created a set of twenty activities to help people connect with their whānau and culture.

Practice the 5 ways everyday

International research has shown that the Five Ways to Wellbeing can help boost brain development and make a real difference to the way we feel (New Zealand research shows people who practice the five ways to wellbeing have higher wellbeing).

  • Connect: Support your tamariki to develop meaningful relationships with the important people in their lives – you can help by giving lots of hugs, by doing lots of listening, and just by being there.
  • Be active: Moving makes you feel good! Kids love to run, jump and dance. Encourage it – it’s good for their body and mind.
  • Take notice: We often tell our kids to pay attention but we never teach them how! Encourage awareness of what’s going on in the world around them – for instance the season, or the good and bad things about their day.
  • Keep learning: Kids are naturally curious and switched on to learning new things. Encourage curiosity and questions, and always keep an eye out for new experiences.
  • Give: Practicing kindness boosts wellbeing for the giver and the receiver. Tamariki love giving away things like pictures or hand-picked flowers – it gives them a real sense of power!

Find out more about the Five Ways To Wellbeing.

Five Ways
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