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close this bookActivity, Energy Expenditure and Energy Requirements of Infants and Children (International Dietary Energy Consultative Group - IDECG, 1989, 412 pages)
close this folderThe cultural regulation of infant and child activities
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentAbstract
View the document1. Research on culture and child development
View the document2. The developmental niche
View the document3. The regulation of infant state
View the document4. The activities of older infants and children
View the document5. Toward a typology of activities
View the documentReferences

2. The developmental niche

The developmental niche has been presented as a framework for examining the way cultures structure the micro-environments of infants and children (SUPER and HARKNESS, 1986). It is based on the cross-cultural literature referred to above, as well as the ecological perspective introduced in developmental theory starting in the late 1970s (e.g., BRONFENBRENNER, 1979). The niche framework has been applied successfully to commonality and diversity in several domains of behavioral development and physical health, including motor behavior, affective functioning, cognition, and infant morbidity and mortality (HARKNESS and SUPER, 1983, 1985, 1987a, in press; SUPER, 1987; SUPER and HARKNESS, 1982). It appears to hold promise as well for understanding environmentally induced variation in children's activities and, eventually, their energy needs.

The developmental niche is conceptualized as a way to relate the systematic organization of human environments provided by cultures to the daily micro-environments which influence early development (SUPER and HARKNESS, 1986). The niche has three major subsystems which operate together as a larger system; each subsystem, in turn, operates conditionally with other features of the culture. The three subsystems are: (1) the physical and social settings in which the child lives, (2) the culturally regulated customs of child care and child rearing, and (3) the psychology of the caretakers.

The physical and social setting is important in shaping a child's activity not only through the kinds of activities available but also through the defining activities of other people present. The identity and relationship of the others are, of course, part of the setting itself. For infants, the setting has been found to influence such fundamental aspects of development as sleep patterns and the attainment of motor milestones (SUPER, 1981; SUPER and HARKNESS, 1982). Similarly, the identity and activities of the caretakers are influential, for they determine the degree of playful interaction. From the second year of life onward, as the child begins to explore the environment independently, one can hypothesize that enclosed or dangerous environments lead to lower levels of large muscle activity than do benign and open spaces. The former class might comprise small, inner-city apartments and rainforest environments, while the latter includes farming homesteads and suburban developments with yards and parks. Objects in the settings differentially induce appropriate activities. Televisions and computers are less likely to lead to high energy needs than are soccer fields and gardens that require hoeing. Similarly, a high concentration of peers may lead to more physically active games than a setting with primarily adults. The social definition of the setting is also influential, however, such that a large peer group in a school room with an adult teacher has a different effect from the same collection of children in connecting backyards on a sunny afternoon, with one adult nearby mowing the lawn.

Customs, as used here, refer to techniques of protecting, teaching, and socializing that are so commonly used by members of the community and so thoroughly integrated into the larger culture that individual caretakers do not need to rationalize them or even give them conscious consideration. They are likely to be regarded by members of the culture as the obvious, reasonable, and natural way to do things. In this sense, customs include the routines of daily care (such as infant back-carrying), age-appropriate activities that give practice or preparation for adult life (such as child tending and homework), and more complex, institutional mechanisms (such as formal schooling and rites of passage). Before the infant can crawl or walk independently, the local techniques of care dictate the range of physical activities available, as is evident in comparing the tightly swaddled infant to one in a modern 'infant seat' or being carried loosely on the hip. The kind and amount of energy expenditure associated with such variation in physical care has not apparently been measured (see Torun, this volume), but would appear to be substantial. In the preschool and later years the divergence in activity is very great, especially as children come to participate in activities oriented toward preparation for adult life. A systematic assessment of energy needs for various activities would require careful specification of actual behaviours; most current research, in contrast, uses goal-oriented categories such as 'child tending', which might take place in the context of anything from active roughhousing to distracted daydreaming.

The psychology of caretakers - their beliefs, values, and affective orientation - organizes not only their immediate behavior towards children but also many larger decisions, such as which settings are most appropriate for children of a certain age or sex. Particularly important here are parental ethnotheories about the needs of children, the nature of development, and the appropriateness of certain child-rearing techniques for specific goals. There are, to be sure, specific cultural beliefs concerning the value, or danger, of physical exertion; probably more pervasive are beliefs concerning what activities children 'ought' to be involved in which, incidently, may vary in their energetic requirements.

It is evident that there are many connections among elements within each of these three subsystems. There are also homeostatic mechanisms that press for coordination with each other and with the developmental level and individuality of any particular child. In addition, it must be noted that each of the three components of the niche carries unique relationships to other aspects of the larger culture and ecology. Thus, it has been demonstrated that the subsistence base of a society (agricultural versus hunting and gathering) is related to the goals and techniques of socialization for independence and obedience (BARRY, CHILD and BACON, 1958), while aspects of carrying versus 'caching' of infants is strongly influenced by climate (J. WHITING, 1981).