As a therapist, Cary Hamilton has seen and heard it all, often from children and teenagers. Yet one of the scariest scenes she continues to witness comes when children walk into her playroom at Olympia Therapy and become paralyzed with indecision when confronted with a plethora of toys. “They look at us like, ‘I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do,’” says Hamilton. “Instead of being like a kid in a candy store, they have a fear response because their perception is that they’re supposed to meet the adults’ expectations.”
Levels of depression and anxiety among children and teens are on the rise in America; according to some reports, 5 to 8 times more high school and college students meet the criteria for major depression or anxiety than did 50 years ago. “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” states Dr. Stuart Brown. Many of those young people end up in Hamilton’s office. She has noticed a common denominator among those clients: stress brought on by having too much to do and not enough time for free play. All humans need free play.
“The biggest issue is that kids are overscheduled,” says Hamilton. “In an attempt to make sure they’re ticking all the boxes to become well-rounded, their parents are putting them in soccer and karate and ballet. We’re making them stressed out and overwhelmed.”
Hamilton is an advocate of free play and the social, emotional and cognitive benefits it brings. Research has consistently found that free play builds creativity and the ability to come up with unique ideas, develops motor planning skills, fosters decision-making ability and independence, and develops social skills and collaborative play skills. But increasingly over the last few decades, schools have begun curtailing recess or creating structured recess with an adult in charge. The issue is compounded by an increased focus on success that leaves children and especially teens with virtually no unscheduled time in the day. This is very unhealthy for their whole well-being.
“Play calms the central nervous system and brings our bodies into regulation, particularly after a hard day at school where kids have had to sit still, be focused, do everything they’re told and transition six different times,” says Hamilton. “Instead they come home and have to sit down, do more work or get ready for their next activity. That goes against our body’s growth and development mechanism and perpetuates anxiety and stress as well as low mood and irritability.” Hamilton states “we have to pay attention to the whole child’s wellness, which includes their mental health.”
Two other areas that suffer when free play goes away are imagination and intrinsic motivation. When every activity is scheduled, no time exists for the creative impulses that occur unscripted. The result is that when they’re asked to be creative – like the children entering Hamilton’s playroom – they don’t know what to do. This decreases their self-esteem and confidence.
“The idea of diving in and learning something or being creative is actually scary for them,” says Hamilton. “It creates an anxiety response. They don’t have any practice in doing something they weren’t told to do and they’re afraid they’re going to be judged rather than just doing something because they are curious, want to learn, or just enjoy the play process.”
Ironically, given the focus on success and achievement, intrinsic motivation also falls by the wayside. Free play offers opportunities for children and teens to experiment and discover on their own, which fuels a desire to learn more. “They don’t know how to take risks and fail and make mistakes,” Hamilton explains. “You can’t be human and not make mistakes.”
Understanding that parents aren’t intentionally setting out to create depression and anxiety in their children, Hamilton has the following tips:
Encourage your kids to get bored. Strange as it may sound, boredom fosters innovation and creativity when left to its own devices.
- Stop allowing them to play with electronics constantly. Electronic devices are a fast entertainment that falsely engages the play system in the brain without delivering the benefits of actual play that includes moving the body.
- Encourage them to get outside in the natural world. The benefits of nature have been amply documented in Richard Louv’s bestseller Last Child in the Woods and subsequent Vitamin N.
- Sign them up for just ONE recreational activity at a time.
- Encourage a regular bedtime and a nightly routine that focuses on calming the body and being present.
- Spend 30 minutes a week playing with your child and letting them be in the lead. “It’s been clinically proven to be beneficial, which is why it’s part of our evidence-based treatment,” says Hamilton.
- Every child is unique and requires different parenting. Check in with a Child Mental Health Specialist to parent to your child’s specific needs and development. To ensure you are attending to your child’s mental/emotional wellness.
Allowing kids to come home after school and enjoy free time will actually help their learning to improve, she says, because they’ll be regulating their bodies through active play and imagination, which increases both social and cognitive development. That sounds a lot like success by any standard.