Child Stress- Schedule Less & Play More
Globally, parents and educators are working towards raising healthy children who are able to live long, successful lives. We want to give them the tools, skills and experiences that will shape their brains to be smarter, more resilient and emotionally stable. Many of us know that early intervention practices are vital in developing a strong foundation that children will carry with them throughout their lives (Jamieson, 2012). Why then, with all of this information and good-intention, are today’s children more stressed than ever? According to YoungMinds, a charity in the United Kingdom, “around one in 12 children aged 5 to 16 self-harms, a worrying 68 per cent increase over the past decade” (Buckland, 2013,para.7).
Mental Health management is as important for children as physical health. In middle to high socio-economic status families, one contributing factor to highly stressed out children is the rise in children being over scheduled and over-supervised by well-meaning parents. According to Dr. Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist, “there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an over scheduled childhood…and nobody knows where that line is.” (Feiler,2013, p.1). Parents too, suffer negative side effects when their children’s lives are heavily scheduled. Parents who feel rushed or hurried between activities tend to be more stressed and less-patient with their children. This parental stress is likely to increase their risk for conflict with their children leaving them feeling guilty and out of control (Stout, 2009).
Helicopter parenting is also a factor related to the increase in childhood stress levels. This style of parenting involves spending an abundance of time with their children and micro-managing their lives during infancy, preschool, adolescents, as well as into early adulthood. According to Hodgekiss (2013), “while some parental involvement helps children develop, too much can make them more likely to be depressed and less satisfied with their lives” (para.3). Early signs of excessive stress can include, children being withdrawn or intensely avoidant, as well as a child who openly expresses angry feelings or negative behaviors (Kostelink, 2012).
Children need to feel autonomous and in control of their lives just as much as the rest of us (Hodgekiss, 2013). As children enter school there are many adversarial experiences they can face; mean friends, unsupportive teachers or challenging classwork. If they have an ‘I can’t do it’ attitude or become defeated and discouraged easily, they are at risk of developing depression or other anxiety disorders in coming years. Resiliency, the ability to bounce back after facing adversity, is a critical part of children’s development in relation to the prevention of mental illness. Protective factors that increase a child’s resiliency include a positive view of self, positive outlook on life, effective emotional and behavioural regulation strategies and close relationship to responsive caregivers (Kostelnik et. Al, 2012). According to Price (1982) “parents need to fill a child’s self-esteem bucket so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes in it to drain it dry” (p.23). I would say this is true for all caregivers, not just parents.
When parents and caregivers are confronted with startling statistics about self-harm and anxiety their reaction is often ‘what can I do?’, ‘we need to do more!’ however, there is considerable research supporting ‘the less is more’ mantra. Parents tend to questions this ideation, often wondering ‘if our children are not in extracurricular activities every night of the week, what will they do with their time?’ How can parents bond with their children without stifling their independence? How can we get them to grow and develop without all the stress? The simple answer is Play.
Play with less structure, less scheduling, less organized activities and even less rules; it all equals less stress. Free-play is the key to prevent and cure childhood stress. Whether the play is dressing up, climbing trees or finger painting, there are so many benefits to social, physical, and intellectual development without the need for a hectic schedule.
Free- play outdoors in nature specifically, increases all of these benefits substantially as well as helps to reduce symptoms of mental illness. According to Richard Louv, journalist and author, “contact with the natural world appears to significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children as young as five.” (2011, para.5). One school in New Zealand reduced their instances of bullying, vandalism and injury and increased the children’s in-class concentration levels by tearing down their playground, eliminating most rules. In place of their play structure they filled the space with loose parts such as scrap wood, fire hoses and old tires (Su, 2014). Although playgrounds can be found around every corner in urban settings, the outdoor play that reaps the most rewards is in pure nature.
Another major benefit of outdoor nature play is the increase of moderate risk. Having successful experiences with risk-taking experiences, like hiking and tree climbing, increases children’s confidence in what they are capable of and therefore boosting their resiliency. There are so many benefits for nature play that a forest school movement is sweeping Western Culture. Forest School Canada defines itself as;
“An environmental education program that originated in Europe. Students visit the same local woodland, outdoor classroom, or park on a regular basis over an extended period of time. Through nature-based and child-directed learning, young people develop problem-solving skills, the ability to interact effectively with others, and knowledge across subject disciplines.”(About Forest School, 2014, para.1).
Some of the benefits they include in their comprehensive list are; overall improvement in health (environmental, physical, emotional, and mental), promotion of safe risk-taking, and reduction harmful and hazardous behaviours, boosts self-esteem and increases school readiness (About Forest School, 2014).
The research presented is not implying that all parents should live with their children in the woods but it does illustrate that there are ways to reach developmental goals for children in a less stressful and harmful way. According to Louv (2011) vitamin ‘N’ is being prescribed by doctors and psychologists all over the continent. The label reads as follows:
“Directions: Use daily, outdoors in nature. Go on a nature walk, watch birds, and observe trees. Practice respectful outdoor behavior in solitude or take with friends and family. Refill: Unlimited. Expires: Never.” (Louv, 2011, para.2)
This prescription for play should be applied in a variety of settings; at home, in your yard, in neighborhood playground, a local forest, and anytime you’re able to leave the city and spend time in pure nature the stress is sure to melt away.
Indoor and outdoor free-play is a cost-free activity that does so much good for the whole child while creating strong healthy family bonds. Even if the child is playing alone in their room but is focused on their Lego construction or role playing a tea party, leaving them alone shows them you love them by letting them be themselves. This tells them that their choices are of value and you care about their interests.
The trend of young children participating in multiple activities such as sports, music, cooking, dancing and swimming lessons comes from the knowledge that early experiences are best but beware not to take that to the extreme. Do what feels right to you and look for cues of stress in your children. Dr. Thompson suggests parents make a simple observation, “is the child giggling when you drop them off or pick them up [from their activities]? Or are they solemn and dragging their feet?” (Feiler, 2013, p. 2). Ensuring balance between your child’s activities and downtime is the key to distressing today’s youth. Parents who are present and encourage free play, while adding ideas and engaging in active participation are truly promoting mental stability for their children. This truly is the best way to shape their brains to be smarter, more resilient and emotionally stable, which is what we all want for our future generations.
About Forest School. (2014). Retrieved March 14, 2014, from Forest School Canada: http://www.forestschoolcanada.ca/home/about-forest-school
Beverlie Dietze & Diane Kashin. (2012). Play and Learning in Early Childhood. Toronto, ON, CA: Pearson Canada Inc.
Buckland, D. (2013, August 4). Our children are more stressed than ever. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from Express: http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/419519/Our-children-are-more-stressed-than-ever
Feiler, B. (2013, October 11). Overscheduled Children: How Big a Problem? Retrieved March 14, 2014, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/fashion/over-scheduled-children-how-big-a-problem.html?_r=0
Hodgekiss, H. (2013, Feb 13). Children with controlling ‘helicopter parents’ are more likely to be depressed. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2278596/Children-controlling-helicopter-parents-likely-depressed.html
Jamieson, J. (2012). The Science of Early Childhood Development. Winnipeg, MB, Canada.
Kostelnik, M. J., Gregory, K. M., Soderman, A. K., & Whiren, A. P. (2012). Guiding Children’s Social Development and Learning (7th ed.). Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth.
Louv, R. (2011, July 6). THE “VITAMIN N” PRESCRIPTION – Some Health Professionals Now Recommending Nature Time for Children and Adults. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from Children and Nature Network: http://blog.childrenandnature.org/2011/07/26/prescribing-vitamin-n-%E2%80%94-a-growing-number-of-health-professionals-are-taking-action/
Price, A. (1982). 101 Ways to boost your childs self esteem. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publisher Inc.
Stout, H. (2009, October 21). For Some Parents Shouting is the New Spanking. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/fashion/22yell.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Su, R. (2014, January 29). New Zealand Schools Ditch Playground Rules, See Less Bullying Among Children. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from International Business Times| Education: http://au.ibtimes.com/articles/536271/20140129/new-zealand-auckland-swanson-primary-school-bullying.htm#.UyO8-vldXZE