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The cultural regulation of infant and child activities

1. Research on culture and child development
2. The developmental niche
3. The regulation of infant state
4. The activities of older infants and children
5. Toward a typology of activities


* Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Henderson S-110, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, U.S.A.


Recognition that children need energy not only for health and growth but also for social and economic life in the household suggests that it is important to understand the range of culturally induced variation in the activities of infants and children, how this diversity is regulated, and what purposes it serves. This paper presents a brief examination of the existing cross-cultural literature on children's activities, followed by a review of the 'development niche', a framework for examining the way cultures structure the micro-environments of infants and children. Finally, observations are presented that demonstrate considerable diversity in the levels of activity and arousal in infants from seven different communities on three continents. This diversity is shown to be related to the three subsystems of the developmental niche: the physical and social settings, the customs of child care, and the psychology of the caretakers. Studies of older children do not typically conceptualize activities in a way that indicates their energy costs. It is concluded, however, that a theoretical framework and an empirical methodology exist for constructing a typology of children's activities; and that if energy costs can be attached to paradigmatic examples, the result would be a contextually sensitive, developmentally oriented understanding of the energy requirements for the world's children.

Recent reconsideration of the protein and energy requirements of children has led to the recognition that provision must be made not only for health and growth, but also for the physical activities appropriate to social and economic life in the family and community (e.g., FAO/WHO/UNU, 1985). One could perhaps view this statement as one aspect of the growing appreciation in many circles that the diversity of human life and cultures cannot be reduced to a single dimension such as 'advantaged' versus 'disadvantaged', and that the organization of this diversity pervades all spheres, even the biological requirements for the promotion and maintenance of health. It follows that recommendations can be truly universal only when they include adequate recognition of the structure and meaning provided by local context. In order to afford such recognition in dietary recommendations, as contained in the 1985 FAO/WHO/UNU position, it is necessary to have some understanding of what the culturally induced variation is in the activities of infants and children, how this diversity is regulated, and what purposes it serves.

1. Research on culture and child development

Scientific research on the lives of children around the world has been carried out for a variety of purposes since its beginnings in the early twentieth century (HARKNESS and SUPER, 1987b). Although this body of work enables very few specific comparisons of activity level, the results are useful in suggesting the power of both developmental and contextual influences. One specific contribution from this literature to the present discussion is a theoretical framework, the 'developmental niche', for understanding how cultural settings influence children's lives, including their daily activities.

Much early ethnographic information on children's activities was collected in a qualitatively descriptive manner, and it was often incidental to the primary focus on social structures, ceremonial life, and customary practices. Nevertheless, many fine descriptions of the daily life of infants and children can be found in the classics of anthropological field reports, both old and new (e.g., BRIGGS, 1970; FOX, 1967; MALINOWSKI, 1923; MEAD, 1928; B. WHITING, 1963). Recounted in this body of work is a remarkably wide range of activities and restraints, including passive exercise of the limbs by caretakers, protection from overagitation, spontaneous games, quiet crafts, hunting, leisure, organized sports, household chores, agricultural work, ritual learning, and commercial activities.

Some qualitative aspects of child activities have been included in the systematic organization of the descriptive literature into the Human Relations Area Files for cross-cultural or holocultural comparisons (e.g., MURDOCK, 1953; NAROLL, MICHIK, and NAROLL, 1980; WHITING and CHILD, 1953). The lack of comparable quantitative measures for components of child life, however, has proven to be quite restrictive. Fortunately, more focused field studies of children and families in multiple cultures have become more frequent in the past decades, both in anthropology and cross-cultural psychology. WHITING and WHITING's six-culture study (1975) is the paradigm of this kind of research, and its reanalysis and expansion by WHITING and EDWARDS (1988) provides an unusually organized insight into the activities of young children in a number of societies. This work is primarily concerned with the embedded social behaviors, however, and it does not address the physical demands of children's activities. The few comparative studies that do focus on children's 'work' are concerned with the economic contribution of activities, not their expenditure of energy (MUNROE, MUNROE and SHIMMIN, 1984; MUNROE et al., 1983).

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).

3. The regulation of infant state

The integration of the niche's subsystems as regulators of daily life can be illustrated by a comparison of infants' arousal and activity level, one of the few domains where there are quantitative data relevant to energetic needs. The data are derived from 'spot observations', a technique developed in East Africa by MUNROE and MUNROE (1971; see also ROGOFF, 1978). The procedure was used in the present studies to gain a broad description of infants' daily experiences for other purposes, but the data have been reanalyzed here for a common measure of arousal and, implicitly, level of physical activity.

Several of the communities discussed here are located in rural areas of tropical zones, and most of the daily life of infants and young children takes place outdoors in an open yard or courtyard of the homestead. This significantly facilitates the collection of data unbiased by caretaker responses to the arrival of an observer. The researcher, upon approaching the infant's homestead, mentally notes the location and general activity of the infant and others present, before they are altered by his or her own arrival. After exchanging greetings, the observer records in a standard format the infant's state of arousal, physical position, and activity; the age, sex, and kinship status of all persons present; and other relevant information. In the urban American case reported here actual visits would have been difficult and costly. Therefore a telephone version of the spot observation was used in which the mother was asked "Where was the baby (etc.) when the telephone rang?". Both internal and external evidence suggest this method yields valid information.

Spot observation data are presented from seven communities. Five of them are in Kenya and, with the American sample, were originally collected to examine environmental influences on motor development (see SUPER, 1976). The seventh community, in Bangladesh, was part of a prospective study on variations in the home environment and daily care of infants with high and low rates of diarrhea (see ZEITLIN et al., in press). The data presented here are extracted from these larger studies to cover the ages of 6 through 11 months, the period of best overlap across sites. The following seven communities were sampled:

Manikganj, a village of very low-income Hindu and Moslem families in Manikganj District, Northwest of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. 2,115 spot observations were made on 96 infants, between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., several times a week during the period from February through July, 1986.

Kokwet, a rural farming community of Kipsigis people in the western Highlands of Kenya. The 54 families living there were successful farmers who used some modern farming techniques while maintaining many traditional aspects of family life. Spot observations were carried out on a weekly basis over 28 months starting in 1973. In all, 62 infants were observed 832 times between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Ngecha, a pert-urban community of Gikuyu families, outside Nairobi. Fourteen infants were observed several times a week during 1974, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., for a total of 98 observations.

Maridadi, a working class area of Nairobi inhabited by Africans of varied ethnic backgrounds. A total of 105 observations were made on 23 infants between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., during 1975.

Kiganda consisted of families living in villages on the periphery of Kampala, Uganda. Most of the fathers were employed in low- and middle-income jobs. Forty-six infants were observed a total of 123 times, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., in 1975.

Kalenjin provided a sample of highly educated African families in Nairobi, where the fathers were employed in the upper ranks of the military, the professions, and executive positions in business. Thirteen infants were observed a total of 91 times between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. during 1975.

Cambridge is part of metropolitan Boston, Massachusetts. Spot observations were carried out by telephone on 62 infants from middle- and working-class families during 1974, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Infant state was reliably differentiated into three levels, asleep, awake (not crying), and crying (awake), which appear to correspond to increasing levels of energy expenditure. In addition, the observations while awake (not crying) are here divided into those in which the infant was relatively free to move (e.g., in a crib or on a mat) and those in which the infant was constrained by being held. It appears that this distinction marks, on average, some difference in activity level, although in a very crude way.

Figure 1 presents the distribution of time in each state for infants in the seven samples. Most salient is the substantial variation among the groups, which is statistically significant (Chisquared, p < .0001). Time awake and not constrained by being held, when energy expenditure is probably greatest, ranged from 24 to 59 percent. Combined with crying, the other high-energy state, this figure still varies by half, from 39 to 61 percent. It thus appears, in summary, that even by the second half of the first year infants in different cultural settings may spend significantly different amounts of time in states of arousal and restraint that promote or inhibit high levels of energy expenditure.

Figure 1. Infants' time in four states of arousal and restraint: Ages 6-11 months in seven samples.

There are several limitations to these data, most prominently their neglect of at least 14 hours of the day. It is reasonable to hypothesize, however, that the contrasts evident in Figure 1 are representative of activities during the remainder of the day, except that sleeping is of course more frequent during the night in all samples. This alone would not alter the overall conclusions, and it is notable that in the one case where a 24-hour comparison is possible, the contrast is maintained (see below).

Although information on the developmental niche is sparse for most of these samples, some reasonable speculations can be offered. In Cambridge, where infants were most unrestrained in the first year, the home settings were probably the cleanest and safest, and intermediate control was often available with cribs or other circumscribed spaces. Customary care did not include infant carrying except for transportation, and there was a common parental belief that independent, self-guided exploration is an important process in early cognitive growth. In short, all three subsystems of the development niche contributed to the high portion of time spent awake and unrestrained among infants in Cambridge.

The low rate of crying in Cambridge may be related to the generally excellent health of these infants, their high priority for attention from the caretaker (almost always the mother), and a widely-held belief that rapid maternal response to infant distress is important for the healthy development of elementary social relations. Poor health and a relatively dangerous environment in Manikganj and Ngecha probably contributed to the high rates of crying and being held in these two samples. Physical settings were somewhat similar in the Maridadi, Kiganda, and Kalenjin samples, but in the latter case the immediate caretaker was more often a young, inexperienced employee, and the mother was often absent. In contrast, the caretaker in Maridadi and Kiganda was usually a sibling or other close family member, and the mother was usually present.

Considerably more ethnographic material is available for Kokwet, which was studied extensively by Harkness and Super, and there is also more complete evidence on the relatively low amount of time spent sleeping (SUPER and HARKNESS, 1982). Twenty-four hour recordings of sleep-wake patterns indicate that, by 16 weeks of age, infants in Kokwet slept significantly less, by approximately 2 hours per day, than an American sample studied by PARMELEE, WENNER and SCHULZ (1964). Again, all three subsystems of the niche play a role in creating this divergence. Initially the newborn in Kokwet was kept quietly in a darkened hut, in the exclusive care of the mother. Excitement or agitation was considered to be potentially dangerous to the infant (DE VRIES and SUPER, 1979).

Over the next few months, however, the baby was in close contact with the mother, riding on her back or hip, sitting in her lap, or sleeping under the same blanket. In addition, the baby quickly entered a relatively dense social space of siblings, half-siblings, and neighbors. Rarely, in fact, did the baby have a quiet place to sleep undisturbed. By 3 or 4 months, typical moment-to-moment care during the day became increasingly the job of a 6- or 7-year-old sister, who would carry, hold, and entertain the infant while the mother resumed more of her other responsibilities. Beyond natural social play, there were customary routines of physical exercise and training that the Kokwet sibling caretakers used with the babies, and it was commonly believed that an absence of such stimulating activity would retard motor development. Although the mother was usually nearby, she was busy in the garden or doing other chores. When the baby became agitated or hungry, and could no longer be distracted by play or exercise, the sibling caretaker carried her charge to the mother, who paused in her work and offered the breast. Breast-feeding often ended with a sleepy baby, but surrounding activity or being carried and moved, tended to soon awaken the infant, and the cycle would repeat.

In contrast, the typical baby in Cambridge (as in the Los Angeles sample: PARMELEE, personal communication, 1977) slept in a room separate from other household members, protected from noise and intrusions. Periods of rest were thought by the mothers to be important for proper growth. Provided with this private space, the Cambridge infant was required to adapt less to the particular activities of family members. Feeding was typically formula from a bottle, with larger and fewer episodes of feeding than in Kokwet, especially during the night. The American infant came not only to sleep more than his counterpart in Kokwet, but also to show by 4 months the long, unbroken periods of sleep thought by most Americans to reflect the natural course of maturation.

The analysis so far has focused on assumed differences in energy expenditure during the four states of arousal and restraint. It should be noted, however, that there may be other consequences of these patterns of care related to nutritional needs. There is a strong parallel between the divergence in the amount of physical contact (and related vestibular stimulation) observed here, on the one hand, and the experimental induction of differences in growth rates and neuromuscular maturation in both animals and humans, on the other (e.g., THOMPSON and GRUSEC, 1970; CLARK, KREUTZBERG and CHEE, 1977). There is some reason to think growth may be promoted by the high rate of naturally occurring physical contact found in, for example, Kokwet and Maridadi (see SUPER, 1981, for a full discussion). Perhaps the higher apparent energy expenditure for awake activity in Cambridge is counterbalanced in these other groups by an increase in nutritional requirements for more rapid maturation.

4. The activities of older infants and children

Figures 2 and 3 extend the spot observation results through the second year of life for the samples in Manikganj and Kokwet. The decrease in sleep expected with age is evident, as is a lesser decrease in crying. The time awake and free to walk, explore, and jump about - or not, as the case may be - increases dramatically. In addition to this strong developmental effect, it is notable that the sample differences remain. The children in Kokwet spend more time than those in Manikganj without physical restraint. The energy implications of this become quite uncertain at older ages, however, as the range of physical activities within psychological or economic category of activity expands. Knowing, for example, that by age 6 the children of Kokwet spend half their awake time in activities that contribute to the household economy (HARKNESS and SUPER, 1983) only masks the fact that such contributions include sitting quietly with a sleeping infant, playing tag with other 10-year-olds while 'watching' the family cows, collecting wild vegetables, and clearing a field for planting. The relevant quantitative information on physical exertion is not available in the cross-cultural literature.

Figure 2. Infants' time in four states of arousal and restraint: Three ages, Manikganj.

Figure 3. Infants' time in four states of arousal and restraint: Three ages, Kokwet.

5. Toward a typology of activities

What degree of precision in the measurement of energy expenditure and time allocation would be required to address the implications of the new FAO/WHO/UNU 1985 formulation? Dietary guidelines are used for a variety of purposes, but few if any of them are so precisely tailored to an individual's level of activity that a set of limited categories might not suffice. Appropriate time-sampling methodologies exist, as the present study and the work of the Munroes demonstrate. The developmental niche framework provides an understanding of the mechanisms involved in the cultural regulation of children's activities. Guidelines for community-based studies could be constructed on the basis of the existing literature; they must include recommendations for sampling across days and throughout the year, as well as specific observational protocols.

There is also a need for the creation of a typology of activities known for their energy costs which could serve as a guide for classification of the observed activities. This task may not be out of reach in light of other reports at this conference.

Perhaps a final outcome would be an enumeration of several paradigmatic niches to serve as models in arriving at energy recommendations for particular communities. There would remain, to be sure, many fundamental research questions about energy use as well as the developmental functions of various activities (e.g., GOODNOW, 1988). But the results would be an innovative synthesis of behavioral, cultural, and biological perspectives and they would be a landmark recognition of developmental diversity within an universal set of recommendations.


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