We hear a lot about reducing our stress, as adults, and strive for that desperately needed leisure time, for the sake of our sanity, but how often do we consider it for our children?
It seems ironic thinking this is even an issue with kids. We assume it’s an area that naturally takes care of itself, but times have changed.
In addition to attending school full-time (with a decrease in recess, physical activity, and creative arts), kids are enrolled in structured activities that often keep them going non-stop. In an attempt to make them “well-rounded” we have them involved days, evenings and weekends—even organizing their leisure time—with the assumption that it’s healthy.
Adults get stressed from too many demands, without breaks, and kids do too! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “For some children, this hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety and may even contribute to depression.” They add, “Increased pressure to achieve is likely to manifest in school avoidance and somatic symptoms.”
These symptoms are manifesting themselves right into college and university. Childhood and adolescent depression is rising through post-secondary years, and is linked with the early pressure-filled attempts to prepare for a high-achieving adulthood.
We’re burdening children with an over-scheduled life, without allowing for an outlet to deal with that stress, especially with the compromise of family support.
The protective influence of family time is also lost by over scheduling. Instead of spending quality time together—talking, preparing meals, working on hobbies or playing—that time is spent arranging and shuffling kids between activities. The buffer that family interactions provide is compromised, contributing to increased stress.
The pressures aren’t just on our children. Parents are increasingly bombarded by messages suggesting that good parents provide their children with every available learning tool and opportunity to excel.
Many parents are running themselves ragged trying to keep up, fearing their children will fall behind and sometimes guilt sets in if they don’t participate in this type of lifestyle, worrying they aren’t good parents. So much stress associated with something that wasn’t always so complicated.
There was a time when downtime for kids was just that — leisure time for play. Spare time wasn’t rigidly controlled, and kids did fine. Contrary to what some people believe today, undirected playtime is very productive.
Undirected play provides an opportunity for creativity, leadership, problem solving, and self-advocacy. “As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges,” indicate the AAP. Other benefits include decision-making skills, self-paced actions, and learning about their own interests and passions.
If self-motivation is nurtured in children—through self-directed free time—it provides them with opportunity to pursue their own ideas that enable them to achieve their own success, and cope better with adversity.
Research on anxious children found that those allowed to engage in free imaginary play showed lower stress than those not allowed. This suggests what many of us know—that open-ended play enables kids to make sense of and work through confusing, frustrating and scary experiences.
According to the Alliance for Children, “Given the many ways that play strengthens the social and emotional life of children and relieves stress, it is likely that its decline contributes to mental problems.”
While structure and organized activities are important, it’s essential to balance them with unscheduled time for creative growth, self-reflection and decompression.
Achievement is great, but we need the foundation of our health to cope with the stressors along the way. Simply put, “Play is one of the vital signs of health in children,” says the Alliance. They add that it’s also “the world’s most natural learning tool.” We can’t afford to lose sight of that.
Cheryl Patterson has a B.A. in Psychology and has researched the area of stress for over ten years. For more on Cheryl visit cherylpatterson.ca.