You're Doing Playtime Wrong & How to Fix it...
Playtime is an essential aspect of a child's development. It is during playtime that children explore their surroundings, learn new skills, and develop their social and emotional abilities. Playtime is not just about having fun; it has significant benefits for children's development.
Cognitive development is a significant benefit of playtime. When children play, they engage in activities that help develop their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. For example, building blocks or solving puzzles require children to use their minds to solve problems and think creatively. Playtime also helps develop children's language skills, as they engage in conversation with their peers, ask questions, and learn new vocabulary.
Emotional development is another crucial aspect of playtime. Through play, children learn to express their emotions, understand the emotions of others, and regulate their feelings. For example, playing dress-up allows children to explore different roles and emotions, helping them understand and express their feelings. Playtime also helps develop children's confidence, self-esteem, and independence.
Social development is also a significant benefit of playtime. Children learn how to interact with others, make friends, and develop social skills such as sharing, taking turns, and problem-solving. Playtime allows children to practice social situations and learn how to communicate effectively with others. Children also learn to cooperate and collaborate, which are essential skills for success in adulthood.
Playtime also encourages creativity and imagination. Children can create their own worlds, stories, and games, which helps develop their creativity and imagination. Through play, children can express themselves, develop their interests, and explore new ideas.
Does Your Child Seem Distant?
Does this sound familiar...
It’s a typical after school weekday.
You watch your daughter trudge in from school, and you chirp “How was your day?”
She shrugs, whispers “Fine”, and then you’re looking at her closed door wondering how she’s really doing but afraid you’re going to get more “Fine” and an exasperated “I’m busy, Mom”.
You want to believe she’s “fine”.
But…she just looks...sad.
You’ve watched her become increasingly distant, and spending long hours in her room on her phone.
Her eyes have that faraway look at dinner as she picks at her food. Sometimes her eyes look a little puffy and red.
Your son seems to spend all his time playing video games with friends online and seems happy enough but when you try to talk to him he mumbles he’s busy and has a lot of homework.
You miss the bright bubbly kids who wanted to spend time with you and wonder where they went.
Are they ok? Is this just a phase? What am I doing wrong? Is this normal?
And you’re not alone in your concerns.
Stress Plays a Decisive Role in Child Rearing
According to a recent PEW research study, 40 percent of parents with children under 18 report feeling very or extremely worried that their kids might struggle with depression or anxiety at some point, and 35% are worried their kids are being bullied.
Even more concerned than getting pregnant, in trouble with the police or drinking and drugs.
You’ve probably heard that anxiety and depression in school aged kids is at an all time high.
In fact, in 2021 the Children’s Hospital Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Academy of Pediatrics jointly issued a statement to the Biden administration declaring child and adolescent mental health a national emergency.
And in 2014 the American Psychological Association study “Stress in America” found teens in America were the most stressed people in America. 83% of the teens attributed their stress partly, if not fully, to school.
But when they ran the survey during the summer months, they found the number decreased by half compared to school months. Other research shows school age kids have twice the rate of attempted suicides, actual suicides, and emergency mental health admissions when school is in session versus vacation weeks.
Recent studies show kids are increasingly more anxious and depressed and a CDC study claimed that by 2019 36.7% of high schoolers 14-18 reported feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness over the past year.
The CDC compiled data showing the suicide rate of kids under 15 jumped 3.5 fold between 1950 and 2005, and then another 2.4 fold between 2005 and 2020, and suicide was the leading cause of death for children aged 10-15, second only to unintentional injury.
These statistics are frightening, the causes many and often out of your control.
How to Fix It. The Benefits of Independent Play
Recent research has uncovered interesting findings that shed light on an overlooked cause... AND what can be done about it.
Peter Gray, professor in the Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College and co-founder of Let Grow, believes he has a large part of the answer.
Independent Activity. Unstructured play.
Gray’s most recent article accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence” asserts the main cause of mental disorders in youth is the “decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”
He believes independent activities can immediately promote mental wellbeing.
These activities provide a direct source of satisfaction as well as have long-term effects by building the mental characteristics that “provide a foundation for dealing effectively with the stresses of life.”
So. Play. Unstructured play.
Gray defines play as activity that is (1) self-chosen and self-directed; (2) intrinsically motivated.” (3) guided by mental rules; (4) imaginative; and (5) conducted in an active, alert, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.
So...what does that translate to IRL anyway?
What are the Steps to Improve Child Playtime?
Gray lists the kinds of risky play that kids need (try not to clutch your pearls):
- Great heights. Climbing trees or other things to “scary heights”, which gives them an “I did it!” thrill and a birds-eye view of the world.
- Rapid speeds. When kids swing on ropes, vines or playground swings, slide around, whether on skis, sleds or slides, or even shoot down the rapids on boats or logs, or ride their skateboards or bikes fast enough to almost, but not quite, lose control they get that thrill I’m sure you remember from your youth. We line up at rollercoasters for a similar thrill.
- Dangerous tools. It depends on the culture, but when kids play with bows and arrows, knives, farm machinery (combines work and play!) or other obviously dangerous tools, they get a large amount of satisfaction knowing they are trusted to handle them, along with the thrill of controlling something that could hurt them.
- Dangerous elements. Kids are fascinated by and love to play with fire, and deep bodies of water which are inherently dangerous.
- Rough and tumble. Children like to chase and be chased, play fight, and usually like being the vulnerable one – the chasee, or underneath in wrestling – taking the most risk of getting hurt but at the same time takes still to overcome.
- Disappearing/getting lost. Kids like to experience the thrill of a temporary, but still scary separation from their playmates- hence why little children enjoy hide-and-seek and older kids like to go out on their own away from adults into new territory with imaginary dangers, including getting lost.
Gray contrasts the 1950’s with today, saying young kids regularly played in these 6 ways and grown ups not only allowed, but expected them to play like that.
But nowadays, parents who did this run the risk of being accused of negligence by neighbors and/or state authorities.
Kids seem to live more regimented lives than ever before and fewer opportunities to be an active participant in community life or contribute to their family’s well being.
Could we doing too much and expecting too little from our kids? Are we setting them up to fail? We expect them to magically “adult” when they turn 18 or graduate from school.
Could we be hamstringing them from being the productive, well-adjusted adults we expect them to be by curtailing their independent activity?
Could it be our kids feel we don’t trust them to act independently from us, and that loss of faith in their ability is causing mental instability?
The answer appears to be...YES.
Parents surveyed say their kids play outdoors independently far less than they did as children, and admit to limiting their freedom outside due to their fears of crime and traffic.
But we do expect them to do their schoolwork. Gray notes that the amount of time kids spend in school and on schoolwork has increased by five weeks between 1950 and 2010 and homework, which used to be practically nonexistent in elementary school, is the norm even in kindergarten.
But...what about recess?
How Have Modern Approaches Hurt Child Development?
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act caused many schools to reduce the recess time, the creative arts, and physical education to focus more on reading and mathematics.
But a study published in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University recently claims that a daily break of as little as 15 minutes or more during the school day could contribute to improved learning, social development and physical health in elementary kids, and those who get more recess behave better and likely learn more.
But since the 1970s, kids lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play and a 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities, according to another study.
Ok. Recess. Play. Unstructured play.
So….what’s so great about unstructured play, anyway?
I’m glad you asked.
According to Gray, play is a a big part of independent activity and a direct source of kids’ happiness and evidence shows that their play-like activity is most satisfying and comes the closest to matching children’s own ideas of play when it happens away from adults’ oversight and intervention.
The Importance of Letting Go of Your "Locus of Control"
There are two categories of LOC, internal LOC and external LOC. Internal LOC means the tendency to believe you have control over your own life and can solve problems as they come up.
Gray says many studies show a low internal LOC is highly “predictive of anxiety or depression in children and adults.”
Gray cites a study where young children working on a problem-solving task whose mothers were more controlling or gave unsolicited help scored lower on internal LOC than did kids whose mothers were more supportive of their child’s autonomy.
Gray says that children experiencing more control leads to more internal LOC which translates to better mental well-being. The more selfstructured time (free play) kids have, the higher they score on “executive functioning”, emotional control and social ability, and even two years later self-regulation.
Furthermore, Gray says there’s evidence that risky play (when kids put themselves in scary situations on purpose) like climbing high into a tree, helps protect them against the development of phobias and builds their confidence (and reduce future anxiety) in handling future emergencies.
So. Play promotes the development of a strong internal LOC.
Even traveling to school (by scooter, bike, or walking) had positive effects on psychological wellbeing in primary school kids, as an Australian study showed.
Another Australian study concluded high schoolers with part time jobs were happier and more independent overall than those without. And it wasn’t just the money: they enjoyed the work and felt their social lives were improved.
First, ask yourself “Am I being too helpful? Do I give my child a task but step in when I see my her making a “mistake” and take over and do it myself?”
Make a conscious effort to let your child try and fail. It will be difficult at first, but keep practicing. You will gain confidence in your kid as she gains confidence in herself.
Letting Go of Parental Control in Practice
So how do you provide the right kind of play and how much? (Pssst: land the helicopter!)
Gray recommends 30 minutes a day at least of independent play. His list of the 6 kinds of risky play that kids need can get your creative juices flowing.
Find out how much recess your child gets at school. Advocate for more if it’s not enough.
The folks at Let Grow (co-founded by Lenore Skenazy and Peter Gray), a non-profit dedicated to promoting childhood independence, believes kids are stronger and smarter than our culture gives them credit for.
They want to make it easy, normal and legal to give children the independence needed to grow into capable, confident, and happy adults. Their website has several resources for parents and schools:
- Parents and Families: How to encourage childhood independence at home & in your community Parents. For example, parents and their children can join the 1,096 others who have signed “The Pledge of Independence”: https://letgrow.org/program/pledge/
- Schools: Programs: that encourage kids to be more independent and engaged: Let Grow for schools: https://letgrow.org/program/educators/ and the Let Grow Play Club: https://letgrow.org/program/play-club/
- Advocacy and Legislation: Let Grow believes kids “have the right to some independence and parents have the right to give it to them—without getting arrested or investigated for neglect.”
To this end, Let Grow works to change neglect laws: https://letgrow.org/program/policy-and-legislation/
The Let Grow Project has a simple homework assignment: “Go home and do something new, on your own. Climb a tree, run an errand, make a meal.”
Students become engaged, curious and excited when they experience some independence. They analyze, evaluate consequences, and also discover their own resourcefulness. Others see their new resilience and problem-solving skills and joy!
Indeed, Let Grow Co-founder Prof. Peter Gray notes that kids who “have more opportunities than others for independent activities are not only happier in the short run, because the activities engender happiness and a sense of trustworthiness and competence, but also happier in the long run, because independent activities promote the growth of mental capacities for coping effectively with life’s inevitable stressors.”
As you practice giving your kids more independent play, you’ll be building their resilience, increasing their confidence in themselves, which leads to better mental health, better behavior, and better relationships with their family, their friends, and others in the community.
Your kids will be more engaged with you, knowing you trust them more and more.
You’ll feel closer and enjoy their company more – and it will be mutual.
That sparkle will return to her eyes and she’ll be the one asking how YOUR day was!