All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed
- January 19, 2017
- Posted by: gordon
- Category: Parenting Tips
All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed
By Esther Entin, M.D.
An article in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Play details not only how much children’s play time has declined, but how this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, problems of attention and self-control.
“Since about 1955…children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” says the author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College. Gray defined ” 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.
Gray describes this kind of unstructured, freely chosen play as a testing ground for life. It provides critical life experiences without which young children cannot develop into confident and competent adults. Gray’s article is meant to serve as a wake-up call regarding the effects of lost play, and he believes that lack of childhood free playtime is a huge loss that must be addressed for the sake of our children and society.
WHO AND WHAT IS INTERFERING WITH CHILDREN’S PLAY?
Parents who hover over and intrude on their children’s play are a big part of the problem, according to Gray. He cites a study, which assessed the way 6-to 8-year-olds spent their time in 1981 and again in 1997. The researchers found that children in 1997 spent less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18 percent more time at school, 145 percent more time doing schoolwork, and 168 percent more time shopping with parents. The researchers found that, including computer play, children in 1997 spent only about eleven hours per week at play.
In another study, mothers were asked to compare their own memories of their playtime, to their children’s current schedules. Eighty-five percent noted that their children played outdoors less frequently and for shorter periods of time than they had. The mothers noted that they restricted their own children’s outdoor play because of safety concerns, a fact echoed in other surveys where parents mentioned child predators, road traffic, and bullies as reasons for restricting their children’s outdoor play. Gray also notes that there is an increased emphasis on schooling and on adult-directed activities. Preschools and kindergartens have become more academically oriented and many schools have even eliminated recess.
FIVE WAYS PLAY BENEFITS KIDS
When children are in charge of their own play, it provides a foundation for their future mental health as older children and adults. Gray mentions five main benefits:
- Play give children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.
As they choose the activities that make up free play, kids learn to direct themselves and pursue and elaborate on their interests in a way that can sustain them throughout life. Gray notes that: ” …in school, children work for grades and praise and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies…In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity.”
- It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules.
As children direct their own free play and solve the problems that come up, they must exert control over themselves and must, at times, accept restrictions on their own behavior and follow the rules if they want to be accepted and successful in the game. These kinds of experiences help them gain mastery over their world. Children who are not given opportunity to control their own actions, to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play grow up feeling they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others. Anxiety and depression often occur when an individual feels a lack of control over his or her own life.
- Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play.
In free play, children learn to control their emotions in both physically and socially challenging situations. Gray suggests that the reduced ability to regulate emotions may be a key factor in the development of some anxiety disorders. Adults who did not have the opportunity to experience and cope with moderately challenging emotional situations during play are more at risk for feeling anxious and overwhelmed by emotion-provoking situations in adult life.
- Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals.
Social play is a natural means of making friends and learning to treat one another fairly. Since play is voluntary and playmates may abandon the game at any time if they feel uncomfortable, children learn to be aware of their playmates’ needs and attempt to meet them in order to maintain the play. Gray believes that ” learning to get along and cooperate with others as equals” may be the most crucial evolutionary function of human social play.
- Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.
When children are asked about the activities that bring them happiness, they say they are happier when playing with friends than in any other situation. Gray emphasized that the loss of playtime have not only taken away the joys of free play but people have replaced them with emotionally stressful activities. In the desire to protect children from danger and to educate them, parents have deprived them of the very activity that makes them happiest.
THE LOSS OF PLAY AND RISE OF ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and Gray cites several studies documenting this rise. Suicide rates quadrupled from 1950 to 2005 for children less than fifteen years and for teens and young adults ages 15-25, they doubled. Gray believes that the loss of unstructured, free play for play’s sake is at the core of this alarming observation.
The competing needs for childcare, academic and athletic success, and children’s safety are compelling. But perhaps parents can begin to identify small changes — such as opening in the schedule, backing off from quite so many supervised activities and possibly less hovering on the playground that would start the pendulum returning to the direction of free, imaginative, kid-directed play.