Tag Archive for play

It’s All Fun & Games Until… It’s Something More

Teaching our children to be helpful and generous is all fun and games…at least in part. That is what I learned from a study published in November 2014. Actually, it was a series of four studies. The first study involved 1- and 2-year-olds assigned to one of two groups. In the first group, a researcher engaged a child in reciprocal play such as rolling a ball back and forth, pushing buttons on a musical toy together, or handing large rings to one another. In the second group, the researcher engaged in parallel paly with the child. Specifically, the researcher played with one set of toys while the child played with another set of toys.  After six minutes, the researcher acted as though they needed help reaching an object. Those who had engaged in reciprocal play helped the researcher get the object significantly more often than those who had engaged in parallel play.

The second study involved assigning children to the same two groups as the first study. It also added a third group in which the researcher merely sat nearby and talked to the child while he played. This time, the researcher left the room and a second researcher, who did not know which child was in which group, came into the room and exhibited a need for help. Once again, those who had engaged in reciprocal play helped significantly more often, even though the person they helped was unknown to them, a stranger.

The third study involved 3- and 4-year-olds in the same two groups as the first study: a reciprocal play group and a parallel play group. As in the second study, the researcher left the room and an assistant carried out the rest of the study. This time, rather than asking for help, the researcher offered the child 6 opportunities to give stickers to him- or herself or to the absent experimenter through the assistant. Guess what. Those engaged in reciprocal play were significantly more generous.

Finally, in a fourth study involving 4-year-olds the researcher asked two assistants to play with the child while he left the room to complete a task. One assistant engaged the child in reciprocal play for one minute. The other engaged in parallel play with the child for a minute. Then the experimenter returned. He showed the children a picture of the two assistants and asked them to point to the one they thought would give them a gift, help them open a door, or share a toy with them. The children consistently pointed to the one who engaged in reciprocal play with them.

These studies suggest that engaging our children in interactive play—play that involves sharing, taking turns, working together—nurtures their willingness to show kindness to others, even those they do not know but trust. It also increased their tendency to act generously toward others. Generous and kind children…triggered by our own interactive play with them. Simply playing a different game next to them did not promote kindness or generosity. Neither did sitting next to them and talking while they played. Getting involved in their play, interacting with them—tossing a ball back and forth, sharing play objects (dolls), or working on a project together (Legos)—promoted kindness and generosity. In other words, teaching our children to be generous and kind is all fun and games. So, be generous enough to kindly give your children the time to interact with them in play…and they will grow in kindness and generosity as well.

The Anger is Real…Don’t Let It Ruin Your Family

Anger…. There is a lot to be angry about today. I don’t need to list it all for you. You know what arouses the anger of so many people today. Just watch the news and you will see angry people. Scroll through social media and you will find angry people. Have a conversation and you might experience angry people. You might even be angry yourself. I know I am. An article recently published in the American Journal of Health Promotion discusses how news media has become “increasingly negative and polarizing” between 1979 and 2010. (Just imagine how much greater the media polarization has become since 2010.) The article focuses on the impact this has had on public health and offers a solution that calls, in part, for a commitment from those reporting the news to report at least one positive story for every three negative stories and a commitment from viewers to support those news venues that do offer those positive stories. But that is not really what I want to address. My focus is family…and anger is toxic in the family.

The polarization and anger witnessed in our society has crept into many homes. Ironically, it isn’t even that people are angry with their family. They are just angry and that anger bleeds into their home. And, as I said earlier, anger is toxic for families. Anger traps families in their pain. It undermines fun by intruding with constant debate and clarification. It erects walls of guardedness that diminish intimacy as well as opportunities to develop intimacy. It blinds us to the things we admire about our family members as well as their perspectives and simple endearing qualities. We end up arguing and debating, agitated, when all we really want is intimacy and connection with our family members.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for anger and a beneficial way to express anger. But when it sneaks into the family, it becomes an undercurrent of toxic emotion, it is not beneficial. It is toxic. So, what can we do? Here are some tips to help us rise above the anger and build love and connection in our families.

  • Ask yourself a few key questions. Do you love your family? Is it more important that you “convince them” of your point of view or that you show them you love them? How do you want them to remember you? How do you want your family to think of you, as an agitated person or a loving person? A person of self-control or a person prone to angry outbursts? Do you want to be remembered as a person who remained calm and shared love or a person who got lost in emotion and snapped out at even the little things?
  • Ask other family members questions…AND listen. In these times we really want to understand one another. Take the time to ask question but take more time to listen. Ask them what it is like for them during these times? How are they managing the stress of the day? Ask what you can do to help them. If they want to discuss issues of the day, ask how you might discuss these issues without it becoming an argument and arousing anger. Let them know you love them no matter what.
  • Give no advice. Simply practice awareness. Too often we give unsolicited advice (I know I do). Giving unsolicited advice sends an implicit message that they aren’t good enough or smart enough to figure things out on their own. Instead of being helpful, our unsolicited advice become rocks thrown at a person’s head. They don’t build relationship. They promote defensiveness. They even hurt. So, rather than give unsolicited advice, practice awareness. Become aware of your family members’ emotions, intent, and perspective. Learn about their priorities and their fears. Become aware of how they express themselves, what irritates them, and what soothes them.
  • Play. Play relieves stress. Play pulls people together. Play builds intimacy. Play washes away the troubles of the day…at least for the moment. Play helps us gain perspective. Engage your family in play.
  • Create “issue free” and “positive news only” zones.  You and your family will benefit from creating times or spaces in which the “issues” of the day are not discussed. In these times you can talk about other things like things you have enjoyed during the day, future family activities, or positive news you have heard. You can talk about a story you are reading, a song you enjoy, or things for which you are grateful.  The possibilities are endless. Just enjoy a time of conversation that can bring joy and connection into your family.

Yes, anger is real. Anger can be legitimate. It can motivate us to create change in positive ways. However, anger can also take over the family. It can be toxic. It can destroy your family. Don’t let anger pull your family apart. Practice these tips and enjoy a loving family.

Parents, Are You a Buzz-Killer or a Responsive Encourager

As parents, we want our children to learn and grow. After all, who wants to spoon-feed a child for twenty years?  No, we want them to learn and grow, to become independent and self-sufficient, responsible and mature. And do you know how children learn? They learn by exploring…and they explore everything. From the time they start putting things in their mouths they are exploring and learning about themselves, the people around them, and their environment. Unfortunately, we sometimes hinder their exploring, and their learning as a result, without even knowing it. Let me give you an example taken from an experiment completed at the University of Washington. One hundred fifty toddlers (15-months-old) sat on their parent’s lap while an experimenter sat across from them demonstrating how to use various toys. This experimenter was a “responsive encourager.” The “responsive encourager” showed the toddler the toys’ movable parts and how the toys made sounds. They rattled and buzzed and moved the toys around in response to the toddler’s excitement. The toddlers were intrigued. They leaned forward and pointed. They wanted to explore (aka—explore) the toy. But alas, a second experimenter, the “buzz-killer,” entered the room and sat nearby. The “buzz-killer” complained about the toys. The “buzz-killer” grumbled, complained, and angrily called the toys aggravating and annoying. (You can watch a variation of this experiment on video here. Notice how the child’s whole affect changes!)

The toddlers were then given the opportunity to play with the toys. One group of toddlers were allowed to play with the toys while the “buzz-killer ” sat nearby and watched them or read a magazine with a neutral facial expression. These children hesitated to play with the toys. They appeased the “buzz-killer” by limiting their exploration of the toy. They hesitated to explore the moving parts and the noises. They hesitated to engage in behaviors that would let them learn about the new toy and their environment.

A second group of toddlers had the chance to play with the toys while the buzz-killer left the room or turned her back so she couldn’t see what the children were doing. This group “eagerly grabbed the toys” and began to play with them. They imitated what the first experimenter, the “responsive encourager,” had shown them. They explored the moving parts. They explored the noises. They manipulated the toy and learned about it. They learned how it worked and they made it work. They explored and learned just as the “responsive encourager” had hoped.

Sometimes we complain about our children’s exploration. We become the “buzz-killer.” They make too much noise; we grumble. Their behaviors are aggravating and annoying; we scowl. They ask too many questions; we sigh. They get into too much stuff; we huff and puff. But when we grumble and complain, act annoyed and yell, we become the “buzz-killer” who hinders their exploration…and their learning. We hold them back from learning about their world, themselves, and the people around them. We become the “buzz-killer” in the room hindering our children’s growth.

Yes. There are times we need to set limits. There are times we will ask our children to explore more quietly, at a different time, or in a different room because we are tired or don’t feel well or just need some peace and quiet. However, we want our general response to be that of the “responsive encourager.” We want to encourage exploration, even participate and stimulate greater exploration. Because when our children explore, they learn and grow. So which are you? A “buzz-killer” who hinders learning and growth or a “responsive encourager” who promotes learning and growth?

Don’t Make Children Prisoners…Set Them Free

I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I repeated out loud what I had read. Nope…can’t believe my ears either. But it’s true. Prison inmates in an Indiana maximum security facility are guaranteed two hours of outdoor time every day; but a survey completed in 2016 found three-quarters of children in the UK spend less time than those inmates outside each day. Half of the children didn’t even spend an hour outside each day. Twenty percent (that’s 1 in 5) didn’t even play outside at all on an average day! (More in Children Spend Less Time Outside Than Prison Inmates and Three-Quarters of UK Children Spend Less Time Outdoors Than Prison Inmates—Survey.) I imagine these numbers are very similar in the US.  In fact, a study in 2018 found that children spend an average of 10.6 hours on outdoor play per week (Study: Despite Known Benefits, Kids Are Playing Less). That is only 1.5 hours per day. Our children spend less time outside than prisoners even though outdoor play helps relieve stress, teach safety, and increase immunity (Who Needs a Prescription for Play).

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. 

  • Encourage your children to engage in unstructured, self-directed play with peers. Learn the benefits of such unstructured time in How to Spend Quality Time with Your Children.
  • Encourage outdoor play. Outdoor play can accomplish great things. For instance, even risky outdoor play plays a purpose, helping to overcome anxiety…so Let Them Take a Risk.
  • Limit screen time. Limiting screen time can increase levels of happiness and increase our ability to  understand nonverbal communications and recognize emotions in others (See Just So You Know: Screen Time & Teen Happiness).
  • Provide opportunities for your children to build relationships with trusted adults outside the immediate family. In fact, It Takes a Village to raise a child.

Break your children out of prison…beginning right now!

It’s Not Easy Being Green… But It Is Definitely Happier

Remember Kermit the Frog’s song:

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.

Bucking the Weaker Trend

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.

Who Needs a Prescription for Play?

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!

Let Them Take A Risk

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 literature review.

  1. Exploring heights by doing things like climbing trees, jumping, balancing or swinging.
  2. Exploring speed as we speed along on our bikes, skates, sliding, etc.
  3. Learning about dangerous tools by using knives, ropes, or tractors for various activities.
  4. Rough-and-tumble play, like wrestling, play fighting, or sword fighting with sticks, helps us learn to negotiate physical interactions with others.
  5. Exploring “dangerous elements” like deep water, icy water, fire, or rock climbing.
  6. “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.

Get Self-Expansion Without the Chubbiness

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Are You Hindering Your Children’s Growth?

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!
« Older Entries