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
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!
Remember when you first met your
spouse? The excitement of new love? The longing to see them as often as you could?
The endless conversations as you got to know one another? Remember the nervousness when you decided to disclose
some new personal information to them? And the excitement of experiencing
acceptance anyway? How about the laughter and the thrill of trying something new
just because your spouse-to-be enjoyed it? These all represent moments of
self-expansion, growth, and learning.
They drew you and your spouse together. These moments were the building
blocks of intimacy and love.
Jump forward several years, perhaps
even to today. Are things getting routine? Feeling kind of bored? Feel like
your marriage is in a rut? Maybe you even feel a little dissatisfied and wonder
how to “liven things up” a bit. Do you miss the “spark,”
the burning ember of love that seems to have slowly cooled and
grown…comfortable? Then I have good
Research reported (in 2000) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers a great solution. Turn back to your spouse and do the things you did when you first fell in love. Literally, grab your spouse and do something you both enjoyed but haven’t done since you first met. Or, better yet, do something completely new, something you’ve never done before, not even when you were dating. Play a new game, cook a new meal, try a new activity, take a trip to a new place. (If you can’t think of anything else, try the activity used in the study. Tie yourself to your spouse on one side by the wrist and ankle before crossing a gymnasium floor that includes at least one obstacle. It doesn’t sound exciting…so maybe try taking a hike or flying a kite together.) Whatever activity you choose, make sure it is a novel activity, a new activity for you as a couple.
When you engage in these novel activities, you and your spouse will learn new things. You will grow and experience an expanding sense of who you are as a couple. Even better, research suggests that when you engage in these novel, fun, and exciting activities together, you will feel better about your relationship. You will grow more supportive and accepting of one another. In other words, your marriage will grow stronger and more intimate. Now isn’t that worth a little bit of fun along the way?
Are you a somewhat shy person, an introvert? You enjoy people, but you’d rather not become the focus of attention at a party or suddenly find yourself having to make some spontaneous, impromptu speech. I know the feeling. BTW, if you are not this person, chances are there is at least one person like this in your family. You can imagine the terror that goes through that person’s mind when their Thanksgiving Day host says, “Let’s go around the table so everyone can tell us what they are grateful for this year.” Suddenly the plan to enjoy a meal and share simple conversation has turned into a whirlwind. Their mind goes blank. They look around the table of 20 people and notice all eyes turned upon them as they search their whirling mind for a word, any word, let alone a word of gratitude.
Well, I just saw a great idea to prevent this trauma and still create the opportunity to share gratitude at the Thanksgiving table. It’s called the Thanksgiving Gratitude Turkey. It takes a little preparation, but I think it is well worth the time. First, make a Styrofoam turkey and some feathers (For instructions click here or use the “basket turkey” in the picture). As your guests arrive, give them a feather and ask them to write one thing they are grateful for on the feather. After they have done that, they can stick the feather into the Styrofoam turkey’s butt…er…I mean, they can place the feather on the turkey’s back. Leave extra feathers on a table in case they want to do more than one. By dinner time your turkey will be full of colorful feathers identifying things for which your guests are grateful. Then, during dinner you, or a willing volunteer, can read some of them aloud.
Another idea, would be to make “gratitude stuffing.” Instead of putting gratitude feathers on a turkey you can write gratitude on slips of paper and stuff them inside a fake turkey, like the real stuffing in the turkey. Then, at dinner time you can pull them out one by one and read them aloud. Of course, my wife doesn’t like that idea as much as the gratitude turkey (she likes mashed potatoes more than stuffing too; but I like stuffing more than potatoes…and there is just something about stuffing a turkey with gratitude). Anyway, my wife rather prefers the idea of colorful turkey feathers decorating a lovely centerpiece filled with statements of gratitude for all to see as they enjoy their Thanksgiving dinner. I guess I can see her point. Ok. Forget the gratitude stuffing. Stick with the colorful feathers on a gratitude turkey…and enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving!
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.
I am always on the lookout for new “family fun ideas.” You can imagine, then, why I am so pleasantly surprised to discover 365 Days of Family Fun by Charlotte Hopkins. This gem of a book suggests a fun family activity for every day of the year…and tells you exactly how to make it happen. The first activity (January 1) involves the whole family in making an “Adventure Box” to fill up with memorabilia of the year’s fun (ticket stubs, menus, pictures, etc.). Then, as part of the final family fun day on December 31 you open the box and enjoy recalling the stories of fun you had throughout the year…and you’ll have more fun doing it! It’s true. From picnics to snowmen to puzzles to recipes you will have fun. Along the way you will learn fun facts, celebrate interesting days, and read great stories. You might just write a few of your own. All in all, this is a wonderful resource for any family seeking to celebrate and have fun together. Check it out on Amazon and start having some family fun today.
“School’s out for summer!” I hear this familiar refrain from almost every student I meet. But, I also know from experience that many will begin to say the all-too-familiar phrase, “I’m bored,” in a matter of weeks. If you hear that phrase in your house, here are some summer boredom stoppers you might want to stock up on.
Art supplies. Make sure to keep a large supply of crayons, coloring books, paper, colored pencils, and water paints to get your children’s creative juices flowing. You might even like to get some clay and, for the super creative group, some “edible jello finger paints” for a snacky art supply.
Crafts and hobby supplies. This may include anything from magazines and newspapers for collages to Lego’s to model airplanes. Some children might enjoy a rainbow loom or perler beads. My daughter enjoys knitting. My niece photography. Help your children find the craft or hobby they enjoy. Then encourage their active pursuit of that hobby.
Passive toys.Passive toys are simple toys that require active engagement from your children. They often require imagination and some level of planning. For instance, Lego’s and building blocks are passive toys. So are packing boxes which can be made into a fort, a tunnel, a car, or an airplane depending on your children’s imagination and need. Matchbox cars and dolls are also passive toys. These toys encourage imagination, problem-solving, and learning. Keep many such passive toys in your home to beat summer boredom.
Books. Books are always a great option for beating boredom. They open doors to new worlds. They encourage empathy. They teach and heal (Books That Heal). Keep a variety of books on hand for your children.
Kitchen Band Instruments.Musical instruments are a great boredom buster. You can use empty tupperware filled with rice for shakers, pots and pans for drums, and spoons for rhythms. You might also try a “straw-boe” or simply purchase some fun percussion instruments from a local toy store. Of course, you can always give your children the opportunity to learn guitar, piano, ukulele, trumpet, clarinet, violin, or any other instrument of their choice. They are all wonderful boredom busters.
Imagination supplies. Imaginative play will “help your child be a head taller than himself.” Keep a supply of dress-up clothes, toy crowns, fake money, and other such supplies available for imaginative role playing. Your children might play teacher, superhero’s, prince and princess, or family. They might even write, produce, and perform their own play for you.
With these supplies your children will have a great time. All the while they will beat the boredom of the long days of summer.
You may have heard a lot about executive functioning over the last few years. Executive functioning is the ability to manage one’s self and one’s resources to reach a goal. Executive functioning skills include the ability to set goals for a plan and then monitor progress toward those goals as well as skills like sustained attention, memory, and impulse-control. As you can see, these skills are crucial for our children’s maturity. In fact, a recent study from researchers at the University of Potsdam found that deficits in executive functioning during elementary school predicted higher physical and relational aggression three years later (Childhood Aggression Linked to Deficits in Executive Function). Fortunately, executive functioning is a learnable skill! That’s right. You can help your children learn the skills of executive functioning and improve in those skills as they age. In fact, tools that teach executive functioning are not even difficult to implement. They even provide an opportunity for you to have fun with your children! Let me give you a few examples.
Playing games that require takingturns will teach impulse control. Having to “wait for my turn” means managing my desire to go, controlling my impulse and waiting for someone else. “Waiting for one’s turn” also requires a person to keep a goal in mind while someone else takes their turn. While waiting for one’s turn, a person monitors their progress toward a goal while comparing it to the other person’s progress toward the same goal. Impulse control, focus, planning, monitoring progress while keeping a goal in mind…all while waiting my turn in a game. “Trouble” and “Sorry” take on a whole new meaning with this information in mind.
Games like “Mother May I” and “Simon Says” teach impulse control, focused attention, and listening. These are great executive functioning skills.
Imaginary or pretend games involve storytelling, planning, managing emotions to fit the story, negotiation, and more. Encouraging children to engage in imaginative play not only nurtures executive functioning skills, it “makes them a head taller than themselves.”
Song games with movements teach young children executive functioning skills like focused attention (focusing on the words of the song), self-control, and memory (remembering the words to the song and the movements). As children get older, line dances, marching band, and dance routines accomplish similar goals.
Games (board games, card games, or team games) that require strategy teach many executive functioning skills. For instance, strategy games encourage planning, holding a plan in mind for several moves ahead, adjusting the plan as obstacles arise, and working memory to remember the plan. Whether the strategy game is chess, Battleship, Clue, or basketball, it will nurture your children’s executive functioning skills.
I hope you get the idea. There are many more activities that promote executive functioning skills (find more in this “Activities Guide” from the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard University). From participating in sports or plays…to learning to play an instrument…to imaginative play and storytelling you will have a great time enhancing your children’s executive functioning through play… and you’ll decrease the likelihood of aggressive behavior in the future. Our world could definitely thank you for that!
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?