I read an article that began by stating “A new paper in the journal Pediatrics summarizes the evidence for letting kids let loose.” I thought, “Interesting.” The authors of this article went on to encourage pediatricians to write a “prescription for play” for their youngest patients. Why would they write a “prescription for play”? Because play, intrinsically motivated and unstructured fun, is disappearing from the lives of our children…and with it the benefits of play are disappearing from their lives. What are the benefits of play? Here are five benefits discussed in the article.
Play promotes brain development. Specifically, play promotes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for learning and growing healthy connections between neurons in the brain. In other words, play primes the brain for learning.
Play reduces obesity and diseases associated with obesity. Running, jumping, and climbing helps children build confidence in their physical ability. It helps them learn the limits of their body as well. Knowing the limits helps them remain safe (Let Them Take a Risk). The physical activity of play helps them develop into physically active and healthy adults. In fact, children who got the most outdoor time were 42% less likely to be overweight.
Play contributes to improved behavior and reduced stress. Children resolve traumatic events through play, working through the troubling aspects of the trauma so they can learn to “put it behind them” rather than let it intrude into their present lives. Obviously, this will reduce stress in the child’s life. Moreover, a study in which teachers engaged children in one-on-one play led to improved behavior in the children who engaged in play compared to a control group. (Investing Time & Attention in Your Children)
Play helps families to bond. Play brings people together. It helps us learn to listen and it teaches us to compromise. Play helps us attune to our children emotionally, mentally, and physically. This attunement allows us to help our children learn to manage their emotions in an effective manner. (Make Your Child a Head Taller Than Himself)
Play contributes to academic success. Play encourages language development, the exploration of ideas, the ability to delay gratification, and spatial relationships. Each of these skills contribute to academic success. Blocks encourage increased knowledge in putting words, ideas, or architectural materials together. Playing store promotes social skills, math, and negotiation skills. Imaginative play promotes storytelling and self-regulation. Physics, social skills, language development, storytelling, arithmetic, geometry, emotional regulation…it can all be found in play. And children learn it faster and better while playing. (Learn more in Have Fun AND Reduce Childhood Aggression.)
We could expand on this list of the benefits of play, but you get the idea. Let the children play. I’m not a pediatrician, but I am a “doctor” of psychology. So, if you need a prescription, here it is: “Your child is to engage in imaginative, unstructured play for at least one hour per day.”
Follow that prescription and your children will flourish…and you could find yourself rejoicing in their growth and maturity!
I hadn’t noticed until someone mentioned it. We were at a playground and there were no teeter-totters. My kids would not learn the thrill of teetering at the high end of the teeter-totter before plummeting back to the ground at a speed slightly quicker than imagined. There were also no merry-go-rounds, the ones you can get spinning so fast that the centrifugal force threatens to pull you right off the ride. I used to love the feeling of having to hold on for dear life and surviving before bursting into hysterical laughter! No, none of that in this playground. Instead, we stood on a large, soft rubber mat surrounded by mulch. The rides included enclosed stairs and “castle peaks, short slides, and balancing beams two inches off the ground. Don’t get me wrong. This was an amazing playground and my children loved it. Their favorite ride, though, was the spinning tire swing. My children loved to get on that swing beg me to spin them so fast their hair would fly straight back. Some parents wouldn’t allowed their children to ride at the fast spin, directed them to the slides and the castles. But my girls loved the thrill of holding on as the force of spinning pulled them outward. I just liked watching their hair fly back as they spun.
This memory came to mind as I read a review of the literature on play and anxiety published in Evolutionary Psychology. This review suggested that “risky play,” like the playground rides described above, help to prevent long-term anxiety. The article notes that we have become a society in which anxiety is epidemic and the overprotection of children may contribute to that increase in anxiety. Risky play, play in which we go right to the edge of safety, may help prevent anxiety. It helps us become more aware of our environment and our personal limitations. The more we know about our surroundings and the more comfortable we become with exploring new things, the less anxiety will hold us back. The more we know about our personal limitations, the more we practice healthy caution rather than anxious avoidance. But risky play does more than increase our awareness. It also represents a form of “exposure therapy,” an opportunity to face our anxiety in a healthy, appropriate manner and overcome the fears that threaten to imprison us. For instance, climbing trees teaches us to interpret the feelings associated with greater heights as information rather than simple anxiety that holds us back and “keeps us on the ground.” We can make wise decisions based on our experienced-based knowledge of the environment (strong vs. weak branches) and our own ability. This comfort with heights translates from trees to bridges to rooftops to airplanes. We learn to think wisely about our actions and related fears rather than succumbing to irrational anxieties.
So, what kind of risky play can help
your children avoid anxiety? Here are six categories identified in the
Exploring heights by doing things
like climbing trees, jumping, balancing or swinging.
Exploring speed as we speed along on
our bikes, skates, sliding, etc.
Learning about dangerous tools by
using knives, ropes, or tractors for various activities.
Rough-and-tumble play, like
wrestling, play fighting, or sword fighting with sticks, helps us learn to
negotiate physical interactions with others.
elements” like deep water, icy water, fire, or rock climbing.
“Getting lost” and
exploring our communities and world.
Of course, we don’t want our children to go crazy. We still need to teach our children the difference between risky behavior and hazardous behavior. However, when the opportunity arises, let your children engage in some risky play. Let them poke the fire. Let them climb the tree. Encourage them to do some rock climbing, wood chopping, vegetable cutting, and swimming in the deep end. Let them explore. You may be preventing the rise of anxiety and opening the door for them to live a more joyous life.
My daughter says the same thing every time we see an older couple walking hand in hand, talking and laughing, looking into one another’s eyes…looking like they’re on a first date. She looks at me and says, “They’re so cute.” And, they are…but what makes them so cute? What gives them such a glow? A study by Laura VanderDrift in 2011 they are experiencing “self-expansion” in their interactions with one another. No, I don’t mean they have gotten chubbier. I mean that each individual in the relationship has learned how their marital relationship enhances their personal competence and increases the resources they need to make their goals attainable. They have experienced “self-expansion.” And “self-expansion” has led to greater joy and intimacy in their marriage.
How can you experience the joys of self-expansion in your marriage? Good question. There are at least two ways.
One, engage in novel and arousing activities.
Two, including another person in one’s sense of self.
Fortunately, your marriage can provide both of these experiences. When you do have these experiences in your marriage you begin to perceive your partner as the best partner, more positive than any other alternative. That’s a good thing. It builds trust and faithfulness to the relationship. So how can you experience self-expansion in your relationship?
Have fun together. Discover those activities you both enjoy and work them into your schedule. If you like to dance, dance. If you like to hike, hike. If you enjoy the movies, go to the movies. And do it together. Engage in those activities that bring mutual enjoyment. When you do, you’ll both experience self-expansion.
Have an adventure. You can also do something new that interests you both. Perhaps you’ve both considered taking a cooking class. Why not do it together? Take a ballroom dance class just for fun and adventure. Go on a trip to a new place. Try camping or hiking. Try a new activity. If you’ve never been to an opera, give it a try. Grab you partner and do something you’ve never done before. The adventure will bring greater self-expansion.
Explore an interest your partner enjoys. Learn about their interests. Engage in those interests with them.
Begin today. Begin making time to enjoy activities with your spouse. You will experience self-expansion and your marriage will experience stronger intimacy and greater health.
Every parent strives to keep their children safe and healthy. I know I do. We want to provide opportunities for our children to make friends, try new things, and grow. But, many well-intentioned parents cross the line from providing and encouraging to hovering and controlling. Parents often cross this line accidentally, unknowing even, and in response to fears, anxieties, or sensitivities. When that line is crossed, our children suffer. Nicole B. Perry, PhD, from the University of Minnesota, completed a study following 422 children over an 8-year period. Her team assessed the children at ages 2, 5, and 10. The assessments included observations of parent-child interactions, teacher-reported responses, and self-reports from the 10-year-olds. When parents were assessed as hovering (aka, “helicopter parents”), the children were more likely to develop emotional and behavioral regulation difficulties. The inability to self-regulate emotions and behaviors contributed to poorer social skills as well. What did a “hovering” parent do while interacting with their children? What made them “hovering” parents (3 Signs You Are A Helicopter Parent)? Well, rather than letting their children pick out a toy and play, “hovering” parents told their children what to play with and how to play with it. For instance, they might take over the controls for the video game to show their child how to complete a level, leaving their child to sit passively by and watch. Or, they might explain that tree leaves are green, not purple, and expect the child to color them green because that is more accurate. It’s all done to teach…but it interferes with their children’s opportunities to explore, learn from mistakes, and “think independently.” Hovering parents also told their children how to clean up rather than simply encouraging their children to clean up (or better yet clean up with them). They often exhibited strict or demanding behaviors during play interactions, such as demanding the play proceed in a certain order rather than following their children’s lead or negotiating. Compared to children of parents who did not hover, children of “hovering” parents exhibited difficulties self-regulating emotions and behaviors. So, what can a parent do to “not hover” and still teach? To encourage a growing ability to self-regulate emotions and behaviors? Good question. Try some of these tips.
Talk about feelings and what behaviors might flow from various feelings. Help your children develop a vocabulary for emotions and a behavioral repertoire for managing those emotions. (Read 6 Tips to Make Your Children’s Emotions Your Friend for ideas to help you do this.)
Follow child’s lead in play. Spend at least part of your time with children simply following their lead. Acknowledge their actions and report those actions. Doing so communicates as sense of value to your children. It also increases the likelihood that they will follow your lead as well. So, don’t take the controller to let them watch you beat the level on the video game. Instead, let them experiment and simply report back what they did along with the results. (Investing Time & Attention in Your Children describes a great way to do this!)
Negotiate the play. I know this sounds contradictory to the last bullet, but both are true. Sometimes we need to follow our children’s lead in play. Sometimes we need to negotiate the play with our children. Negotiating play teaches our children the skill of cooperation and compromise. It lets them learn that they don’t always get what they want…which in turn increases frustration tolerance. (Sometimes negotiation goes beyond playing. Check out 4 Benefits of Negotiating with Your Child to learn more.)
Give your children chores. Teach them what needs done but allow them the freedom to achieve it in their way. They may choose to do it the hard way. Let them. They may take twice as long to do it. That’s ok. As long as they get the job done well, be happy.
Send them out to play with friends. Let them engage in unstructured, unsupervised play. They will learn amazing self-regulation skills while negotiating, compromising, and enjoying play with other children. (Give them the tools right out of Your Child’s Toolbox for Play.)
Set good example. Let your children see you manage anger and frustration well. Let them see you express joy and sorrow in healthy, appropriate ways. After all, our children learn best by watching us. So, set a good example. And start that example with having fun!
Children thrive when they learn to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. They need to engage in at least two tasks to learn the skills of managing their behaviors and emotions. These two tasks make up the work of children. If they do not do this work, they will fall into our current cultural crisis of self-indulgence and self-gratification. On the other hand, doing work that allows them to learn the skills necessary to manage behaviors and emotions contributes to success, long-term joy, and contentment. So, let’s put our children to work. Let’s get them on task, engaged in the work at hand. Here are the two basic work tasks in which our children need to engage so they develop the ability to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. Read on…because these work tasks might surprise you.
Unsupervised, unstructured play remains the number one job for our children. When children play with other children they learn to cooperate with one another. They practice the art of compromise. They often need to set aside their own self-gratification for the good of the group and negotiate a solution everyone can live with if they want to continue the game. Each player learns to wait their turn, a discipline in delayed gratification and self-control. They also learn that they cannot “get their way” all the time. In the work of unsupervised, unstructured play our children learn to resolve disputes in a way that keeps everyone involved in the game. Unstructured play also allows children to take healthy risks, learning the limits of their bodies and abilities and when to stop to avoid injury. In other words, unsupervised, unstructured play is a job that teaches our children the skills necessary to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. ( Make Your Child “a Head Taller Than Himself” explains more about the benefit of play for the maturing child.)
Significant work in the home or community becomes the number two job to help our children learn to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. Notice, our children need “significant” work not “meaningless” tasks. Our children need work that makes a significant contribution to our home or community. Significant work allows them to feel like an important part of the home, like they are an important wheel in the overall functioning of the family. It informs them that they belong; they are needed. Children also become more confident when they have chores that play a meaningful part in their homes or communities. If, on the other hand, we prioritize our children’s activities to the extent that they no longer have any household contribution, we have set them up for struggles. They can easily slip into self-indulgence rather than community-orientation. They learn to be self-focused rather than community-focused. They miss out on opportunities to develop the discipline of prioritizing “what needs to be done” while making time for other activities as well. By engaging in significant household chores children learn of their self-worth, their contribution to “something bigger than themselves.” In other words, significant chores in the home and community give our children the opportunity to learn to manage their behaviors and emotions independently. (Read Chores: The Gift of Significance for more.)
So, put your children to work. Make time for them to engage in the work of unstructured, unsupervised play and assure they have significant chores that contribute to the home and family.
Want to increase your preschooler’s attention span, ability to plan, and self-confidence? Here is an idea borrowed from “Tools of the Mind”. Let me describe what the teacher does in a preschool where this idea is utilized. The teacher helps children plan their play before they begin their play. They actually discuss what the children want to do and let them “write down” the order of activities they want to engage in. The “written” order of activities may not have actual written words. It may consist of pictures or what appears like scribbles. Nonetheless, it represents the child’s plan, a symbolic contract.
Children then begin engaging in their activity. As you have likely experienced, they often lose focus part way through the activity and begin to drift to another activity. At that point, the teacher brings the children’s “written contract” out and asks them if they finished what they had planned to do. Often, the children look at the paper and remember their “plan.” “Oh yeah. I have to finish….” A simple reminder and they return to the initial activity and continue with “the plan.” After the activity, the teacher goes over the “plan” with the children again. They acknowledge the children’s accomplishment. This allows the children to enjoy the accomplishment of completing what they began. Adding to the benefit, children gain an increased attention span, a better ability to plan ahead, and a greater sense of self-confidence. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?
Reading about this tool got me thinking. Could we do this with our children at home? Sure, it takes a little more time but preschoolers spend a lot of time planning their activities already. And, it really isn’t that hard. We simply begin to talking with our children about the play activities they want to engage in. We allow them to “write down” the activities and “make a plan.” Then, as we engage in play and our children begin to drift from the plan, we ask them about the plan. We even let them look at the “written plan” and ask if they still want to continue with the plan or change it. Many times they simply remember the plan and return to the activity they had initially written down. And in the process they learn to plan ahead, focus, and build self-confidence. How great is that?
PS-If you missed our couple’s retreat P.L.A.Y. Rx you missed learning more about the joys of play, laughter, adventure, yearning, and rest for your marriage. But, here are some pictures of the times we shared. Hope to see you next year.
Maria Montessori once said, “Play is the child’s work.” All work requires tools, not just any tools but the right tools. It does no good to cut a 2X4 with a hammer or a screwdriver to pound in a nail. No, we need the right tools for the right job. Play is a child’s job. In play, children work to build independent skills. They work to gain confidence and become better problem-solvers. Children gain an understanding of their world and how to navigate that world through play. “Play is the child’s work;” their maturity and wisdom depend on them doing this work with the right tools. What are the right tools for the work of play? Good question.
Toys, of course…but not just any toys. The best toys to get a child’s job done right are those that encourage imagination, investigation, interaction, problem-solving, exploration, or invention. Magda Gerber notes that the best tools, the best toys, for a child’s play, “don’t do anything.” Children must actively engage in and interact with the toy and those enjoying the toy with him to have fun, which brings us to tool #2…
Imagination. Sometimes having too many toys get in the way of getting the job done. Encourage your children to play imaginative games in which they pretend to be various characters and act out various roles. Give them play clothes and costumes, action figures and dolls, props and room to pretend. Like Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Encourage imagination. (Read Make Your Child “a Head Taller Than Himself” for more.)
Boredom. Boredom is a fundamental tool for learning to entertain the self. Boredom encourages your child to better use the tool of imagination. Boredom sparks creativity. It promotes resourcefulness. Boredom teaches children to entertain themselves. I’m not promoting constant boredom, but some boredom is a great tool in the toolbox of your child’s play. (Read 3 Responses to the Summer Mantra “I’m Bored” for more.)
Friends. Children also need time to play with friends. They learn so many skills while engaged in play with friends, skills like communication, compromise, negotiation, and problem-solving to name a few. Set up play dates. When problems arise, step back and let them solve the problem on their own. Step in only when if they absolutely need your assistance. (Become Your Child’s Friendship Coach will offer more suggestions.)
Outdoors. A recent study suggests outdoor play increases executive functioning skills and decreases inattentive-hyperactivity symptoms. Unstructured play in a natural/outdoor setting is also linked with improved mental health and better emotional regulation (Year round outdoor play can boost kids’ performance in school describes more). So, encourage your children to get off the video games and play outdoors as often as possible.
Make sure these 5 tools remain in your child’s toolbox for play so they can do the work of play in the most effective and productive manner possible. You’ll enjoy watching them build a mature, independent, and kind adult through the children’s work of play.
Twenty-seven years ago I found a beautiful woman standing between me and a cream-filled chocolate-iced donut. She began to talk with me and I, with one eye still on “my” donut, spoke with her. Ironically, I enjoyed the conversation even more than the donut. Two years later, we married. This month, we celebrate a joyous twenty-five years of marriage. We’ve enjoyed many adventures and traversed many a struggle together during those 25 years. And, we’ve learned a few lessons about making marriage work. Maybe these lessons can help another couple enjoy marriage as much as we do. I hope you find them helpful.
Connect often. Connect with one another verbally, emotionally, and physically. Connect multiple times each day. There are so many ways to connect that it really isn’t that hard to do it multiple times each day. Talk to one another. Share stories of the day. Share memories. Talk about your joys and sorrows, fears and courageous acts. Give a kiss good-bye, hello, good night, good morning. Hug. Hold hands. Connect often.
Focus on the positive in your spouse. Express gratitude for your spouse. Thank your spouse for what they do for you and your marriage. Tell your spouse what you admire about them. Focus on what makes your spouse beautiful as a person of character (internal beauty) and as a person with external beauty. Let them know the beauty you see.
Work together. Be a team. When times get tough, work together to get through the troubles. Enjoy the good times together as well. Work together to keep your home and work together to raise your children. Working together will demand you talk to one another, discuss areas of difference, and connect to stay on the same page. Although it can prove more difficult to work together when one of you is irritable or suffering some loss, these are the most important times to make the choice to work together. So turn toward one another in hard times and in good. Work together to get through the difficult times, enjoy the good times, and build a great time. (Building a Purpose Filled Marriage)
Play together. “All work and no play makes marriage a dull thing.” Find activities you can enjoy together like games, adventures, or walks in the woods. Laugh together. “Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good” (Lucia Capocchione). I agree with Plato when he says, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” If you really want to know your spouse in a deeper more intimate way, play! (For more benefits of play read Play for a Better Marriage.)
Dream of tomorrow together. Along with playing together, dream together. Dream about what you’ll do next year, in five years, after the kids leave home, after retirement. Dream about trips you can make together and goals you can accomplish together. Share your spouse’s dreams and help your spouse reach their dream. Whether they dream of becoming a better photographer or preparing a special meal for dinner, support their dream and do what you can to help them realize their dream. I loved the scene in “UP” when Carl realizes he helped Ellie achieve her dreams…and it had nothing to do with where they lived.
Bring out the best in your spouse. Help your spouse become the person they want to be. (Read Husbands…Set Her Free.) One way to do that is help them reach for their dreams (see bullet #5). Another way to bring out the best in your spouse is to honor them daily. When we communicate honor for our spouse we liberate them to become the best they can be.
Marry an amazing person. Choose your spouse wisely. (Read How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk to help in this area.) I must admit, this may be the most important one for me. I truly did marry an amazing woman. She has joined me in many adventures and patiently put up with my shortcomings. She has helped me achieve dreams I never thought possible. (And, I still got the donut when we met!!) I hope I have done the same for her. Thanks for 25 wonderful years. I look forward to another 25.
Our children crave quality time with us, their parents and families. In fact, they need quality time with us. Quality time is the currency of love in our children’s world. It purchases their sense of security and it is crucial to their emotional and mental health. Quality time creates a sense of safety that allows them to explore their world, learn about their life, and grow more mature. One of the best ways to spend quality time with your children is to enter their world rather than expecting them to enter your world. When you enter your children’s world of play, imagination, and thought you learn so much about them and you help them grow more mature. Of course, sometimes we find it difficult to enter our children’s world. After all, it’s just so… well…childish. But the benefits to their emotional and mental health are enormous. Here are some tips to help you enter their world.
Let them lead the play rather than you leading them. As they direct the play, you can narrate what is happening like a sport’s caster narrating the play. When you do this, your children feel valued and appreciated. They know you consider them significant enough to pay attention to. (Investing Time & Attention in Your Children will give you more ideas for letting your children lead the play).
Let your children choose the toy. When children are expected to play with a toy not of their choosing, they quickly become bored. Their attention span shortens and their interest wanes. You actually help increase your children’s attention span when you follow their lead and let them choose the toys and objects of play (For more read Nurture Your Child’s Attention Span).
Be available during the play without imposing your desires on them. Instead of suggesting what your children “could do,” delve into what they are doing and enjoy it. Enjoy their imagination, their ideas, and their activities. Your children will learn the importance and power of their ideas.
Allow children to enjoy independent, unstructured play while you remain available to them. Studies suggest that children allowed to engage in independent play have higher IQ’s than those who engaged only in adult led and structured play (Read Make Your Child “a Head Taller than Himself” for more).
In other words, a great way to have quality time with your children is to let your children teach you rather than trying to teach them. When we allow our children to teach us, we let them have the joy of discovering themselves.