Let the children play, science says

Opinion: Was 2020 a struggle for your children? Samantha Marsh says a healthy dose of play could be the way back to safety, bringing joy and resilience too.

Two young boys are pictured playing in a rocky stream in a New Zealand landscape: Play could be the key to unlocking our children’s emotional well-being during these strange times. Photo: iStock
Play could be the key to unlocking our children’s emotional well-being during these strange times. Photo: iStock

I will always remember the first few seconds of 2020. My husband and I were celebrating with friends from Melbourne. They’d had a bad year and, for very different reasons, we’d had a bad year. We all agreed things would be better in 2020. I’ve replayed that conversation over in my head many times since, of course, as 2020 turned out to be anything but ‘better’. Our naïve enthusiasm is now a source of amusement to me.

Last year wasn’t great for our kids, either. They’ve been exposed to recurrent school closures, extended home confinement, social distancing, fear of infection, frustration, boredom, living with uncertainty, and, perhaps most importantly, isolation from the people they love. This year it became unsafe to be physically close to those who are usually a source of safety and comfort. That’s some heavy stuff for a child to deal with. Unfortunately, little kids aren’t great at communicating this ‘stuff’ with us.

I remember walking my 6-year-old to school after lockdown. As we got closer to her classroom she told me she was scared because her “legs and tummy were shaky”. She hid under the table after I left and wouldn’t play with anyone or talk to her teacher. She was feeling anxious, but didn’t have the words for it. These were new feelings and behaviours and she didn’t understand them. But while she couldn’t tell me that she was feeling unsafe, she certainly could show me. We had to find a way to help her deal with these emotions.  

It turned out play would provide the most direct route back to safety for her.

Play – and here I’m referring to that special kind of play that doesn’t involve electronics or adults telling kids what to do – can be deeply healing for little ones. It provides them with a safe environment to experiment with new behaviours, a context to explore worries and stressful events, and the opportunity to regulate negative experiences and emotions in the absence of consequences.

If we look to societies that flourish, play seems to be a central component to their success. Research also suggests a lack of childhood play may be contributing to the youth mental health crisis we are witnessing. And while the concept of play for mental health is not new – with play-based therapies a relatively well-researched approach in the treatment of children – naturalistic play (for example, undirected free play, play without outcomes or consequences, social play, rough-and-tumble play, make-believe play, etc) is often viewed as ‘frivolous’.

Whatever you do, don’t expect them to thank you (they won’t). Kids don’t always know what’s best for them – but you do.

Let me be clear – play is not frivolous. In fact, it could well be the key to unlocking our children’s emotional wellbeing during these strange times. It’s been shown to lower cortisol levels (our stress hormone), buffer us against the effects of hardship, and build resilience. Even in children facing the most horrendous stress, including those in the Romanian state system, those exposed to the bombing of Beirut, and the street kids of Rio de Janeiro, play has been shown to act as a natural therapy.

Of course, not all New Zealand children have been exposed to this level of adversity this year (although some will have been), 2020 hasn’t been easy and there are lots of kids out there (including mine) who could do with a healthy dose of play this summer.

So how do we encourage this unique kind of play? Start by creating some space (turn off the screens!). I know, media companies have done a pretty amazing job at eking out every morsel of our children’s attention, but this shouldn’t mean our kids are denied access to the kind of play that brings them emotional rest, healing, and joy. Yes, your kids will cry/whine/tantrum. Yes, they will say they are bored. That’s OK. Boredom is good for them. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace the boredom knowing that it is often a gateway to creativity.

And whatever you do, don’t expect them to thank you (they won’t). Kids don’t always know what’s best for them – but you do.

If this year has taught me just one thing, it’s that we shouldn’t place too many expectations on the future. 2021 may be easier. It may not. But it certainly won’t harm our kids if we send them into the future a little more resilient, and with a little more joy in their laughter. Our children were literally designed to play – so this summer, let them.

Dr Samantha Marsh is a research fellow in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Let the children play, science says 1 January 2021.

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