An essential ingredient has been slowly disappearing from children’s lives: free, spontaneous play.
Many factors have converged to cause the decline of play. Technology absorbs more and more of children’s attention. Schools pile on academic pressures earlier and earlier. And parents are increasingly opting to place their children in structured extracurricular activities.
That makes today’s world much different from the one I grew up in, playing with my three siblings in a huge messy backyard where a bamboo grove served as a fantasy forest where fairies and goblins lived.
It’s no wonder that I chose a profession that lets me sit on the floor with children and parents utilizing play as an effective form of therapy. As a child psychologist, I see growing numbers of young children experiencing challenges with emotional health, including anxiety, restlessness, and challenging behaviors. One reason: children have fewer and fewer chances for spontaneous play, which helps them work the “muscles” of emotional problem solving and build psychological resilience.
Dr. Stephen Porges, a top neuroscientist, calls play a “neural exercise” that helps children come to grips with their conscious and subconscious fears. How well we develop as fragile creatures in a scary world depends on our ability to experience what Dr. Porges calls the neuroception of safety. Psychologist Peter Gray’s research shows how play teaches human beings critical life skills, building resilience. In short, play exercises the muscles of mental health!
When children feel safe in body and mind, they can play, grow, and restore, all essential factors for healthy mental and physical development. When they don’t feel safe, they expend energy on basic survival, entering a mode known as “fight or flight” and spontaneous play shuts down. Children either try to escape or they strike out, becoming aggressive, often without warning.
This is where play comes in. Play is exercise for the child’s brain and body (they are connected) that enhances the development of emotional health. Play is fun, but it also allows children to explore uncertainty and fears under conditions of safety, gaining mastery over fears and across emotional states.
Think of Peekaboo. Why this simple game so alluring for babies? When the caregiver “disappears,” the child experiences a tolerable dose of fear under the condition of relational safety. Then comes the rush of relief and joy that comes with the “Here I am!” moment. For the child, it’s an exercise in managing an early bodily state of fear.
At later developmental stages, play provides different kind of benefits. A mother once expressed concern to me about how her five-year-old daughter treated her sister during their pretend pay. The older girl frequently played the role of teacher, meting out punishments to her three-year-old sister and sending the younger girl into time-out.
Since the older girl had no aggression problems or challenging behaviors at school or home, I assured the mother that role playing was simply a neural exercise in mastering the tension the girl felt in her kindergarten classroom when other students acted out and the teacher disciplined them. She was working out her muscle of mastering her vulnerability and fears at school through spontaneous play with her sister.
All children need free time to play, create, imagine, and move—both on their own and with loving adults nearby to join in the play when the child invites them. My mentors taught that we can learn a great deal from following a child’s lead. When we do, we also get a window into the child’s developing mind, and how we can help them with their fears and concerns.
A few ways parents and other can promote the neural exercise of play:
*Make it a point to relax with your child without the phone in sight (go “hands-free”) as Rachel Macy Stafford reminds us.
*Follow your child’s lead. If your child begins to play, join in, become a character in the drama, or an observer if the child doesn’t want you to join.
*Limit your toddler’s access to technology and your own digital use when you are with the child. Model reciprocity and allow yourself to experience the joy of pretending.
*Give children plentiful opportunities for unstructured play at parks, recreation centers, preschools, and day care.
My new book explains the importance of play for children with developmental, behavioral, or emotional differences for professionals and parents guiding their child’s treatment teams.
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