Written by : George Livengood

Free Play Benefits the Whole Family

More activities with less structure can lead to a happier, healthier household.

Children playing with soap bubbles on a green environment background

More activities with less structure can lead to a happier, healthier household.

When did you become the executive assistant to your kids? Do you schedule play dates, choose the activity and pick the participants? Do you pick out the outfit that they are going to wear? Do you spend all day Saturday and Sunday with your children facilitating their activities? Is this what you thought parenthood was going to be like as you excitedly prepared to welcome your little bundle of joy? If so, you might want to consider a different approach.

Do you remember when your mom and dad used to say, “It’s a beautiful day, go outside and play?” They might not have understood why but they were onto something. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that is related to mood. The higher the serotonin level the better your mood. According to a study in Australia, people had higher serotonin levels on sunny days as opposed to overcast or cloudy days. For all of you living in a cold weather climate, it did not matter if it was hot or cold outside, only sunny! With the increasing levels of depression in our country, let’s get these kids outside.

Now, let’s address the notion of play. I am referring to “free play.” Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College defines free play as play a child undertakes him- or her-self and which is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity. Free play helps a child develop their own interests and sense of self. It teaches them how to make friends, navigate social interactions and work together towards a common goal utilizing negotiation and compromise. It helps a child learn to regulate emotions, tolerate discomfort and build resiliency. It is also just plain fun!

Depression and anxiety are on the rise and the rate of suicide among children and adolescents is alarming. Expectations related to school, performance either athletic or artistic, social interactions/social media and the idea that the world is a dangerous place are all stressors that impact the lives of our children and lead to depression and anxiety. Where does all or at least most of this come from? Parents. To be fair, it is coming from a place of love.

As parents, we want to provide our children with the opportunities we never had, set them up at the best school, guide them toward the best possible future and make sure they are safe. But, perhaps as a society, we are overdoing it. Think of all the demands put on us as adults and how that can make us feel that there is not enough time in the day. It can be overwhelming. We are putting similar demands on our children who have less of a sense of self and lack the necessary emotional maturity to cope. We are winding them tighter and tighter.

Yes, school is important. Providing opportunities for children to try athletic or artistic endeavors is important. Providing guidance and support around social interactions and especially the challenges of the internet and social media is crucial. And, safety should be every parent’s concern. However, the backyards, playgrounds and neighborhoods are generally as safe as they have always been in the past. Sadly, the same can’t be said for schools. We need to find a balance between the expectations and concerns we have as parents with a child’s need for play and the associated benefits.

The children will benefit if we learn to manage our own anxiety, stop hovering and allow them and opportunity to explore, make their own mistakes, develop self-efficacy and feel a sense of their own power to succeed. It will help them become a well-adjusted teen, adult and maybe a little less of a worried parent in the future. And it might give mom and dad a chance to breathe.

All of this brings me full circle to the opening paragraph of this article. You were all individuals with your own needs and interests before you became parents. That does not need to end nor should it because you now have children. When you explore your interests and practice appropriate self-care you are modeling a healthy way of life for your children. Children need to understand that they are part of a family not the sole focus of the family. This will help you maintain the family hierarchy with parents on top, allowing children to feel comfortable in their role and be more likely to follow rules and meet expectations.

Healthy children need healthy parents. Take time for yourself to explore your interests and allow your child to do the same. Don’t think that a little less control over the details of your child’s day will make you a “bad parent.” On the contrary, you will be providing space for your child to grow.
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