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Due to the rise in technology, fears about society, and changes in our world, childhood is different than it was just 20 years ago. Technology is much more readily available, and children spend more time in front of screens than ever before. Free play has been traded for organized activities such as sports, clubs, and increased academics. All of these developments lead to changes in the way our brains work as a society and can lead to increased childhood anxiety.
The importance of play
As an early childhood educator, I am not only trained in the importance of play to children, but I have witnessed it. Play is a child’s “work,” their job, if you will. I should probably point out that the kind of play I am talking about is free play. Enrolling your child in an organized sport does not count!
Free play is play solely under the control of the child. It is through free play that a child first learns early social skills such as getting along with others, solving problems, and controlling emotions when the play does not go exactly the way they want it to go.
Free play creates opportunities for natural discovery. For example, when your child’s block tower falls, they have just learned about the physical science principles of gravity and equilibrium.
Free play also gives your child a sense of community and control over his or her own life. Researchers have suggested that the decline in free play since the 1950s has contributed much to the rise of anxiety and depression in today’s children and teens. Play, always organized by and hovered over by parents and other adults in a child’s life, can result in a child losing the sense of community, causing them to feel more isolated from their peers, and in a child losing the sense of control over his or her life, which can set the stage for anxiety and depression.
How societal changes have impacted play
Over the past few decades, there have been huge changes to early childhood. Less play time, more structured supervised time, and screen time affect emotional development and can lead to an increase in childhood anxiety.
For children to be able to develop into competent and confident adults, they require the critical life experience gained through free play. Free play allows children to identify their own interests, learn to make decisions and solve problems unassisted, follow rules, handle their emotions, and make friends. Free play promotes happiness and as play is replaced with more stressful activities, it leads to circumstances almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.
Safety concerns and a greater number of women working full time means that more children are constantly supervised at home or in schools and with the pressure to promote academics, many schools do not focus on play.
Play reduces anxiety
Ashlee Weaver has cited multiple studies on the link between play and anxiety. Weaver explained that children who engaged in free play showed better coping skills in stressful situations. Children who showed anxiety had less organization in their free playtimes. However, after playing, their feelings of anxiety and stress were reduced.
This is great information for today; as the rise of electronics and organized activities like sports have taken over free playtime, the rates of anxiety and stress in children have increased. However, the good news is that encouraging more free play (and less screen time) can help mitigate the effects of anxiety and stress and also increase coping skills for times when anxiety could be triggered.
Give your kids a break to play
There is a lot in this, but I think we need to remember that we are the adults and we need to make the decisions that work best for our children and our families. If homework is piling up, write an excuse note. If extra-curricular activities are getting too much, take a break. I also give my kids the odd day off, to reboot and do nothing
And if you think that is unthinkable, because they may miss something at school, I am a teacher, and my child’s mental health is more important than any fact they will learn! Remember a bit of family time and care can prevent those horrible days when everything and anything goes wrong and nothing is salvageable.