Sunday, December 30, 2012

Making the World A Better Place For Children

"The most threatening health crisis facing children in America today is exposure to adverse childhood experiences." --Journal of Preventive Medicine The first weekend in December, I had the privilege of attending the Life Is Good Playmakers first level training. The Life Is Good Playmakers Training is part of the Life Is Good Kids Foundation, the non-profit arm of Life Is Good, known for their catchy and clever t-shirts and other produces with the famous "Jake"cartoon character image and the words "Life Is Good" imprinted on them. The Life Is Good Playmakers (LIGP) emerged in 2010 when Project Joy, created by Steve Gross in 1989 to help homeless and impoverished kids, partnered with Life Is Good. LIGP found that the three most adverse childhood experiences are poverty, illness and violence, which includes trauma, neglect and abuse. Trauma, poverty, violence and illness all greatly compromise a child's spirit, health and future in life. Play has been found to be the greatest healing force in overcoming these kinds of experiences. Adverse childhood experiences, lead to social, emotional and cognitive impairment. Kids who have lived through or live in adverse conditions may not be able to engage in school or the community. Yet, because of the lack of attention to the emotional and spiritual--and even personal--realities kids live in, kids who are living through difficult experiences are expected to participate as though nothing was wrong or impairing them. There is a prevention gap, where if service providers (teachers, clinicians, physicians, daycare providers) recognize the signs of adverse childhood experience and have the tools to help kids heal, traumatic experiences need not lead so directly to social, emotional and cognitive impairment. When no one recognizes the impact of adverse conditions, and no one intervenes after traumatic experiences, kids may progress to health risk behaviors, such as smoking, drinking and taking drugs, which can lead to disease and disability, which can lead to an early and untimely death. Once the signs of adverse conditions emerge, there is an early intervention gap, where kids can be reached before they develop health risk behaviors. A very helpful model presented during the LIGP training was that of "snake brain" and "dog brain." The snake brain is the reptilian brain, the oldest path. In the snake brain, if you get hungry, you eat. If you get tired, you sleep. The snake brain connects to our most primal urges and needs. Love, connection and thinking are not part of the frame of the snake brain. The dog brain is the mammalian brain, including the limbic system. The dog brain is capable of unconditional love and looks for love and connection. If you don't nurture the dog brain, a child will resort back to reptilian brain and become aggressive. If we have ways to quiet the snake brain and nurture the dog brain, THEN the mind is open to learning. When life is difficult, challenging and does not meet our most basic human needs, we may find ourselves resorting back to snake brain ways to thinking and acting. How do we calm ourselves down and get back to the mammalian/connecting part of the brain? Playfulness is the motivation to freely and joyfully engage with, connect with and explore the world around us. A playful approach can be brought to any activity. It is more about HOW we do what we do, than about what we do. Playfulness can be a vehicle to focus on what's right with the picture rather than on what's wrong, and nurture, foster and sustain healthy relationship. The LIGP training cited some studies done with rats, which showed that when a threat is introduced into an enriched environment (one with rat toys and other rates), play stops. When the threat is removed, sadly, the level of play will be diminished and is highly unlikely to return to an exuberant level. So, in making the world a better place for children, our work is two-fold: find ways to remove threats to play, and find ways to help kids who have been through really difficult experiences grow and heal. An important first step is to recognize that kids have emotional and social developmental needs in addition to cognitive or physical developmental needs. Our society tends to focus too much on the cognitive and physical, without attending to or even monitoring emotional and social developmental needs. Bringing a spirit of play to connecting with kids, listening to kids and learning from kids, will help them feel safe, know that they matter, and that even if sometimes things are difficult, in the long run, everything is going to be okay.

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