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the seeking system

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  • The seeking system is central to understanding how you can help nurture kids' motivation, urge to explore and desire to understand
  • The seeking system through its connections to important upper brain regions has a big impact on how we think and approach life
  • Interactive play experiences for kids in enriched environments activate the seeking system

The seeking system can be thought of as the system responsible for our motivated actions in relation to survival and our desires. It is one of the seven major emotional tendencies of the brain. The seeking system is integral to our motivation, urge to explore and desire to understand. It’s what is responsible for our feeling alive and alert and for the positive experiences we seek in our lives.

Brain anatomy and function

It is helpful for anyone raising or working with kids to understand some basic brain anatomy and function in relation to the seeking system. There are certain brain areas in the mammalian or lower brain, namely the nucleus accumbens and lateral hypothalamus that are seen as important for the seeking system. (based on the work of Jaak Panskepp). These lower brain regions have extensive connections and interactions with the upper brain regions that are responsible for higher level thinking. What this means is that the state activation of the seeking system which is a basic emotional function has a big impact on the way we think. For example, an active seeking system can help us be positive as we go about engaging with the world and performing goal directed behaviours. The chemical dopamine seems also to play a major role in the communication between the seeking system and the frontal lobe of the cortex. Dopamine is sometimes referred to as the “motivational” or “feel-good” chemical of the brain. Having this knowledge allows us to really appreciate how you can actually impact the developing brain of kids through the experiences you facilitate and your interactions. It also provides some of the picture as to why some kids enter adulthood with the get up and go to chase their dreams and others struggle for motivation and happiness.


From an evolutionary standpoint, an active seeking system was essential to survival. Before the rapid change to our modern lifestyle, the seeking system is what kicked in everyday that motivated us to search for food, shelter and protection. Just like the basic emotional system of fear kicks in for us to take evasive action during times of danger. But nowadays it’s possible each day for humans to wake up and do very little to survive. In fact many kids do the opposite of survival by overeating, watching countless hours of TV and playing computer games. But research has shown that for the human brain to be healthy and individuals motivated and happy we need to be active, searching for understanding and engaging in experiences the world has to offer.

The seeking system in kids

So kids have a seeking system that has evolved over thousands of years that kicks in if they are in environments that are engaging and interesting. The system urges them to explore and learn. Consider for a moment what you think sitting in front of the TV and being passively entertained for hours does for a kid’s seeking system!

Now imagine a young kid in an environment that is full of novel objects, or a park with trees to climb they have never been to before, at the beach with a bucket and spade or in a backyard with all different sporting equipment and a few friends and consider the seeking system again!

Being regularly exposed to environments and play interactions that are engaging, promote exploration and present novel challenges activates the seeking system. The more brain areas are engaged, the more strengthened the pathways become. Both brain based and behavioural research have shown how beneficial to development being exposed to enriched environments is for kids. 

When kids grow up…..

The experiences kids have at a young age will have a lasting effect on how they will approach life in adulthood.

A child devoid of rich play interactions that evoke curiosity and inspire a desire to make sense of the world, will most probably go through life with an underactive seeking system or a lack of motivation.

A child who has experienced enriched environments that have been challenging, interesting, varied, free, socially interactive and emotionally supportive will have every chance to go on to lead a happy, active and deeply fulfilling life.

How to Nurture the Seeking System

  • Parents and caretakers have the power to nurture an active seeking system
  • The 4 keys areas are to let kids explore, have freedom in play, have access to new and enriched environments and interact in certain ways.

Most parents would agree in their aspiration for kids to grow up happy, healthy, active and with a strong appetite to explore the world. In fact, nurturing kids so they have the motivation to seek out what life has to offer may only come second in parenting goals to passing on basic survival skills. By the end of this article, parents and caretakers will feel empowered and confident in their ability to nurture the seeking system.

An active seeking system

Remember that the seeking system is one of the 7 basic emotional functions (based on the work of Jaak Panskepp) and is responsible for kids' desire to make meaning of the world and explore. An active seeking system really lies at the heart of kids growing up with not just interests and dreams but also the “get up and go” to chase them. Although the seeking system is effectively inbuilt, parents and caretakers need to allow it to grow and flourish. Just like any other brain region, the connections of the regions responsible for the seeking system will become more prolific and strengthened the more it is used. Sitting in front of the TV, having no objects of interest, no friends to play with or being in the same environment over and over does not stimulate the seeking system. However, exploration, freedom in play, new and enriched environments and joyous interactions do.

Let kids explore

Parents and caretakers need a healthy appreciation for why young kids don’t want to sit still. Their inbuilt seeking system in the lower brain for which the underdeveloped rational part of the upper brain has not yet developed control for just takes over. That’s why when you are sitting at lunch your young child is climbing over the seats, running over to hide under tables and pulling at anything possible. The seeking system that takes over has evolved in thousands of years and it is what helps young kids learn about the world and therefore survive in the long run.

Let kids explore. Don’t squash this drive to explore with a barrage of “don’t touch”, “come here”, “stop that”, “would you just sit still”. Sure kids need to learn boundaries and understand what is acceptable behaviour, but not at the expense of developing an underactive seeking system. Rather at every opportunity, try and enjoy the exploration with them. Encourage them to investigate and interact.

Freedom in play

During playtime, you may have one idea about what game you could play, but very often young kids all of a sudden take an interest in something completely different. They may want to kick the ball for hours one day and be completely disinterested with it the next because all they want to do is try and catch an insect they saw. But the key is for parents and caretakers to be flexible. When they show interest in something, this is their seeking system activating. By showing kids freedom within play, you are encouraging an active seeking system in the long term. But keep in mind structured or goal oriented activities in play are hugely beneficial also as they can help kids develop specific skills such kicking or striking. Parents and caretakers should try to just provide a healthy balance of both and be flexible during playtime.

New and enriched environments

An enriched environment has many characteristics including an environment that stimulates the senses, has novel objects for exploration, promotes physical activity and development of skills, presents unique and appropriate challenges and social interactions. In studies on mammals, enriched environments have been shown to have incredibly positive affects on brain development, some of which are increased neurogenesis (development of new nerve cells) and synaptogenesis (creation of connections), more activation of the synapses (connections) and positive influences on the hormonal and chemical balance within the brain which affects one’s mental state. 

Enriched environments activate the seeking system through encouraging exploration. The environment itself leads to young kids seeking out pleasurable sensory experiences and investigating the unknown because they have access to the things that make these encounters possible.

Taking kids to new places serves the same purpose. All of a sudden they are introduced to a whole new sensory experience and new opportunities to see and feel novel experiences that tickle their curiosity.

Your interactions

The way you interact with young kids is crucial to nurturing their seeking system. We know that kids have an amazing ability to learn just by seeing and being around someone. There are actually even specialized cells in the brain called mirror neurons that serve this function.

Firstly, take a moment to think about your own seeking system. Are you someone who seeks out new and exciting experiences, engages in life and is motivated to pursue interests? Because if you are, kids will be learning and having their seeking system activated everyday by just being around you. If not, and you would like the important children in your life to grow up with an active seeking system and all that it entails, then it may be time you search to find it!

Just by sharing joy in new experiences and places, you will be nurturing young kids seeking systems. Take the time to explore new places and try new activities. Talk to them about how interesting you found something or how excited you are about the games to play or the places you are going. These interactions will leave a lasting impression on the seeking system in their young minds.

You can find many more free articles and videos relating to everything to do with your child's physical, social and emotional development at www.skillforkids.com