It gets worse. Our children’s free time has decreased in the last 50 years. Take the time between 1981 and 1997. Children spent 18% more time in school, 145% more time doing schoolwork, and 168% more time shopping with parents (Read more in All Work & No Play: Why Your Kids are More Anxious, Depressed). Unstructured play time has decreased even though research suggests children need twice as much unstructured play time as structured time (The Decline of Unstructured Play). Once again, our children have become the prisoners to the structures imposed on them. They miss out on the free, unstructured time that allows them to grow and learn.
One last comparison…our children grow increasingly isolated from supportive, non-parental adults as they progress through school. Rather than have a single teacher for most of the day, our children gain a “revolving cast of characters” in their lives as they switch to a new teacher every hour. This change occurs when our children are going through the massive changes of adolescence and they most need the support of caring adults. (Teen Suicides Are on the Rise.) In effect, they become less isolated from caring adults and more involved with peers struggling with the same issues and who have the same lack of experience as they do. Our children need us.
The big question I had to ask myself
as I contemplated these “prisoner comparisons” is: what can we do to
break our children out of this prison? Thankfully, there are ways to do
It’s not easy being green…But green is the color of spring. …And green can be cool and friendly-like. ….And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree….
Maybe it wasn’t easy for Kermit to be green; but green truly is cool and friendly and big. And, it can do great things for our children and teens, like reducing stress. A study conducted with 179 urban-area teens over a two-year period revealed that teens who spent more time in natural green spaces away from home had lower stress levels. Lower levels of stress…that means better moods! Interestingly, this effect held true for any season—spring, summer, fall or winter. On top of that, other research suggests that playing outside and getting dirty may actually help the immune system. Less stress, better immune system…being green may not be easy but being in the green sure sounds good.
Why do I mention all this? Well,
when your children come to you this summer saying, “I’m bored…” or
when you see them “stuck” inside playing video games all day, tell
them to “get out of the house. Go for a walk in the woods. Climb a tree.
Enjoy the green outdoors. Have a picnic. Get dirty.” It will make them
happier and do them some good.
According to a study conducted in Chelmsford, Essex, 10-year-olds reported a decline in physical activity between 2008 and 2014. The study’s authors believed this was the result of increased time on computers and greater parental concerns about children safety when engaging in “riskier” activities like climbing trees or wandering from home.
“So what?” you might ask.
“What’s the difference if children show a decrease in physical activity?”
The real concern is the consequences of
this decrease in activity. To uncover the potential consequences of decreased
activity, the study also looked at changes in height, weight, standing broad
jump, sit-ups, handgrip, and arm-hang in 10-year-olds between the years of 1998
and 2014. Over that 16-year period (1998 through 2014), children have grown
taller and their BMI has remained the same. However, they have experienced an
overall 20% decrease in muscle
strength and a 30% decrease in muscle
endurance! Children have become weaker.
They have also become less tolerant of discomfort.
There is a way you can buck this
trend though, a way to keep your children stronger and more tolerant of simple
discomforts. Encourage them to engage in physical play outside. Give them
significant household chores to complete. Encourage them to work with you in
the yard or in the house. Let them experience the joys of hard work and the
reward of completing a hands-on job. When they do these things, they will gain
a greater sense of competence than any they can learn through video games. They
will grow more aware of their body and be better able to maintain their own
physical safety. They will acquire a stronger and healthier self-image than the
self-image learned from watching television. They will grow stronger…not only
physically but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well. Then, maybe in another 16 years we will earn
how 10-year-olds have not only grown taller but stronger.
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.