Chaos in the home is bad for child development. Homes are chaotic if they are disorganized, unpredictable, and unstable. This could mean they are noisy, are crowded, have many people coming and going, or lack routines. The adverse effects of chaos at home on early cognitive and social-emotional development are well documented. Long-term exposure to chaos interferes with the development of important skills like self-regulation and cognition. But how can we interpret this research in a global pandemic? For many people, home life has become more chaotic since March. Daily routines have been disrupted and replaced. Busy parents are juggling work from home. And many parents are wondering: Should we be worried for our kids?
How do young children respond to chaos in the home? Before the pandemic, we visited parents with infants (1-2 years old) while they played at home. With parents’ permission, we video recorded all the rooms in their house, getting an unprecedented look into their natural home settings. From the videos, we coded physical features of the homes that might reflect chaos, including the number of toys on the floor, items on the counters, unwashed dishes, piles of laundry, and scattered papers. We also analyzed infants’ play behaviors (e.g., the length of play and the objects selected for play) because play is an important way babies learn about their worlds. And the quality of infants’ play predicts cognitive and language skills. Based on research on chaos, we predicted that infants in highly cluttered, physically chaotic homes might experience disrupted play.
Our preliminary findings surprised us: We found no evidence that any of the physical manifestations of chaos at home mattered for babies’ play. In fact, infants didn’t discriminate — they played with whatever objects were available to them, whether the objects were in bins or on the floor, and regardless of whether they were designed for play. They banged on pots and pans like a drum set, made a tower out of Tupperware, and played hide and seek in a pile of laundry. In other words, infants happily played and explored their environments, regardless of the state of their home.
Any scientist or statistician will tell you that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence in support of the counterhypothesis. In other words, we can’t conclude for sure that chaos at home doesn’t matter for infants’ play. Also, our study represents only physical manifestations of chaos. Children certainly need routines and structures to thrive. But when it comes to the state of your house? You can probably relax. And if your budget is tight lately, you can rest, knowing your baby is likely just as happy playing with Tupperware as with expensive gadgets. In coming studies, we plan to ask a different question. Rather than asking how chaos at home affects infants’ play, we want to know how infants learn to adapt to chaotic environments and play using whatever materials are available to them.
The bottom line for parents is this: You’re probably doing a better job than you think. Your baby doesn’t care how organized your home is during the pandemic. Prolonged exposure to chaos is still not good for your child, but infants may be more resilient to mess than we previously thought. And their ability to adapt and even thrive amidst the chaos may actually surprise you.
Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons.