The Opposite of Play isn’t Work, it’s Depression

Can you feel the enthusiasm?  New lunchboxes, new pencils, new classrooms and the back to school excitement is here.  But a look at the statistics for today’s kids tells us this optimism will turn to stress by October.  How do you keep the relaxed and joyful days of summer, even after the school year begins? The answer is so simple you won’t believe me.  So let’s take a look at the problem first.

Many kids today struggle with motivation, joy, self-acceptance, social and life skills. With suicide rates rising and occurring at younger ages, it’s not a problem we can continue to ignore. Anxiety and depression are higher than ever in teens and increasing in YOUNG children! Why?
1. Kids today think the world is a scary place and they have no control to change it.
2. Too much structure: school-work, organized sports and screen time are all about following OTHER people’s ideas.
3. Less and less time spent in nature.
We’ve got a serious problem in the health of today’s kids and teens, not to mention an inability to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow, which require creativity & drive, not repetition. The success of the movie Race to Nowhere shows you parents know it, see it, and need help changing it. But the solution is simple.
It’s PLAY.

Self-directed, imaginative, social, outdoor PLAY.
The benefits of this kind of play are HUGE! But somehow, in our drive to make kids smart achievers, we forgot that the best way to be successful in life is to FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU LOVE TO DO then SPEND LOTS OF TIME DOING IT.  PLAY helps us discover who we are and what we enjoy. PLAY teaches us how to solve our own problems and exert power over our lives. When you PLAY you are in control of your environment, (something my corporate clients know is important).  PLAY teaches that life isn’t about success and failure but about participating for the sake of it. It gives us ACCESS to ourselves: our feelings, thoughts, preferences, abilities, etc. PLAY allows us to discover who we are and who we are meant to be. It gives us the feeling that life is good and all is well. Allowing your kids to initiate and pursue their own interests is as crucial to their well being as feeding healthy foods.

But if you are like me, it’s easier said than done.
My neighborhood is full of single-family homes with sidewalks, basketball hoops and nice families, but nobody’s outside! My kids are not the outgoing type so outdoor play only happens if it’s me initiating it, and I’m busy! TV, video games and ipads keep my kids quiet and out of my hair. And when I say no more, I have to listen to them whine & fight. The pressure to put my kids in organized sports comes at me from all angles.

When you ask parents what is their greatest hope for their child? It’s always the same….happiness. Every parent wants their child to be happy and PLAY is what creates that sense of well-being. Here are some practical tips to create an environment that encourages a LIFETIME OF JOY.
1. Back away from the children. By hovering and directing their play experiences (or hiring a teacher/coach to do it) they don’t learn to control their own world. Let them struggle, make mistakes, invent their own rules & figure it out.
2. Initiate a neighborhood playgroup or street party. Collect emails and schedule “play in the street” days if your neighborhood is as quiet as mine.
3. Teach your kids how to call up a friend and ask them to play. Practice it and praise their initiative.
4. Limit screen time! TV and video games distract a child from their emotions. Kids need to experience boredom, disappointment, frustration and failure and then find ways to soothe it and make it better. Think of it like serving vegetables, nobody likes it but it must be done. Limit and commit, no matter what their ages.
5. Go camping with other families or (my favorite invention ever) go to family camp. Free time outdoors encourages more imaginative play with more creative problem solving than free play indoors.
6. Invite other kids and families over and play “the old fashioned way.” No video games, cell phones or TV, and let the kids figure out how to invent their own fun.
7. Tell the teacher you aren’t going to do homework because it stresses out your child and takes away from valuable play time. (I did. It was hard, I was nervous the whole time.) Remember the schools are here to SERVE YOU, not the other way around. If enough parents do it, they’ll change their policy.
We are out of balance and it’s time to change. We need to enjoy living for life’s sake, not because it’s leading us towards someone elses external goal. What feels like PLAY to you? Do that more and set a good example.  It’s for the kids!

3 thoughts on “The Opposite of Play isn’t Work, it’s Depression

  1. I liked this article; however, I don’t see how you can be involved with your kids, when your busy, and also give them alone time. I guess maybe a little of both? I have a hard time pulling myself away to plan time with my kids. Also, if you tell the school that your child won’t be doing his/her homework, then, aren’t you setting them up for failure? Thank you.

  2. Hi Kelly and Shannon! I think it’s all about balance. Right now, our schools (and culture) seem to be overdeveloping the left hemisphere of our kids brain and the right hemisphere (intuition, creativity, joy, play, design, story) is being largely ignored. For me, removing homework was setting them up for success. My kids were stressed and brains don’t function well under stress. If the teachers have seen Race to Nowhere (which they should), then they’ll get it, no matter what the grade. Times are changing so quickly that our schools can’t keep up. The purpose of good grades is to get into good colleges but college is preparing them for the jobs of yesterday. To be successful, kids need full use of their brains, not just half. I was trained to value working, not playing, so it’s hard for me to switch gears but the research is certainly clear so I’m trying!

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