A few weeks ago, Tamara and I were invited onto the American educational podcast Unstuck, to discuss our newly released book, Reclaiming Our Students. During this podcast, we got talking about why kids are more anxious, aggressive, and shut-down than ever. Well, there are a plethora of reasons, but one key factor is the incredible shift in our culture that has replaced play with entertainment. We enjoyed a rich discussion about the ramifications of this shift and following the podcast, I received many emails asking me for more on this topic. So, I’ve decided to share some insights into how this shift has affected children’s emotional health and consequently, their behavior.
Before we get there, let’s start by taking a look at the role of free play in children’s lives
Play is how children digest their lives. It is when they make sense of their world, release frustration and anxiety, and understand experiences without them being threatening or overwhelming.
Through play, children can try on new roles—to become the courageous hero, the wicked witch, the bad guy, the caring doctor—or act out and process their stories as well as express themselves. In play, they can both build and have things fall apart, over and over, allowing them to practice being frustrated without any real-life consequences or repercussions.
Play can also provide children a safe place to be aggressive until they are capable of not acting out in real life. Children will often express their frustration through play fighting, sword fighting, war games, attacking in fantasy, as well as being drawn to attacking energy in art, music, writing, and stories. When kids are able to release their frustration through play, it can help them be more “civilized” in real life.
When a child plays something out, it lessens the need to be that thing in real life. For example, my nephew is an incredibly well behaved, conscientious child. He takes great care to “do the right thing,” not hurt people’s feelings, and follow the rules. What’s interesting is that when I have watched or listened to him in his solitary play, he will often be the “bad guy.” He’ll be Darth Vader, not Hans Solo; the robber, not the cop. Without an understanding of how play works, I may have wondered why he was so unlike himself. But I see that his frustration and aggressive energy gets to have a life of its own through his play. What he is able to act out through his play, he doesn’t have to act out in real life. He plays frequently and for hours, and his drive to play at times can be very strong—I am guessing it is when nature is telling him he needs to get out his aggressive energy.
I am always amazed by how incredible nature is at providing this system for children. Play is not an “extra”; it is essential in our children’s lives. It acts as the role of a release valve, life’s rehearsal grounds, as well as a medium that allows children to safely make sense of and process their internal and external worlds.
Yet children are playing less and less. In fact, over the past two decades, children have lost twelve hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities.¹
In an ideal world, our students would have ample time for self-initiated spontaneous play at home. But instead, the room for play is getting smaller and smaller, and even where there is some time, play is often replaced with passive entertainment.
Play and passive entertainment are not the same thing.
When I speak at conferences about the loss of play in children’s lives, many people will say, “But my kids do play. They spend hours playing video games and enjoying themselves watching shows and YouTube.”
In no way am I saying that video games and watching TV and video clips are bad for you. My children enjoy video games and Netflix as much as anyone. What I AM saying, is that passive entertainment is not the same thing as play.
There is entertainment that can enliven the imagination, awaken the senses, bring us to tears or laughter, and provide us great release. This type of entertainment may come in the form of great theatre that moves us, movies that capture our imaginations, or music that makes us want to close our eyes and dance.
Although these experiences are technically entertainment (as we are witness to it as opposed to creator of it), it is not passive in that we are actually moved by it. This type of entertainment, the stirring kind, functions more as play, as it calls forth something within us and we engage in it as an experience—it’s emotionally participatory.
Passive entertainment does not awaken the senses, nor does it stir a child emotionally; yet it is this type that most children engage in for hours a day. Passive entertainment is like ‘fill.” It comes into children but does not kindle their spirits, awaken their imaginations or help them to feel renewed. Passive entertainment is something that comes into us from the outside. Play, on the other hand, is something that comes from within us. All play requires some sort of internal movement. It draws forth something within us and following an experience of play, one feels renewed or more emotionally at ease. If passive entertainment is the in breath, then play is the out breath. And many children are breathing in and in and in and in . . .
Many children literally have no awake time in which they are not being simulated or taking in content. With the increase and availability of electronic games that can travel with children—in cars, waiting rooms, and the dull and mundane moments of everyday life, many children have no ‘void’ moments, no empty moments in which their feelings can surface or in which play can take root. And this is not boding well for their emotional health. For healthy emotional development, we all need to be able to feel and express our feelings, as it is our feelings that facilitate emotional growth, development, and maturation.²
The loss of free play has huge consequences on us as teachers and our school systems.
Children are coming to school full of unrest and frustration. They’re anxious and less ready to learn.
So, what can we do? It will help if we can remember that children are FULL of emotions that need release, and that the challenging behaviors we see are telling us something. Children have less places of release, now more than ever.
Our culture is no longer taking care of children’s emotional systems in the way that they need. Our students are arriving to us, displaying the frustration and alarm they are feeling and this can make it hard to build relationships with them as well as challenging for their learning to land.
But it’s not hopeless. Even if we cannot change the culture in which children live, we can address this loss in children’s lives so that we can support their emotional health and learning. We can help them to find some release at school – even if school is virtual right now.
Release is not about trying to be calm or trying to hold it in. Release is about taking what is inside and helping it to come out. It’s about helping a child to express their internal world. Each of us as educators will find our own ways in which we feel comfortable supporting our students in finding room for release and expression. Even just knowing they need it, may help us find the space to provide it.
To support educators with activities for release (virtual or in person) I wrote an Inside-Out Companion Guide to my newly released book, Reclaiming Our Students. The guide contains simple relationship-based activities for students in K-12 and comes free with the book.
Additionally, to support as many parents, educators, and helping professionals as I can during this particularly challenging time, Tamara (my co-author) and I held a free webinar, on Creating Playgrounds for Emotional Expression.
For more information, click here.
I’d like to end this by being clear that there is nothing wrong with a little passive entertainment! Sometimes a little entertainment is relaxing and enjoyable for us or our school-aged children. This is not about judgment. Not at all. It’s about a balance and having an awareness of the difference. It’s about carving out time and space for play to take root. It’s about noticing when we go to fill any empty moments for ourselves or our children. It’s OK to just sit at the bus stop and think. It’s OK to just look out the car window and be bored. These void moments are the times we can ‘play’ in our minds. We imagine things…we may make up scenarios… and in those gentle spaces of nothingness, our feelings can surface.
It’s about realizing that play plays a powerful and pivotal role in emotional health – and that humans, as emotional beings, need safe places to digest our world and find release.
PS: What a privilege to have been invited to speak about our new book, Reclaiming Our Students, on the American podcast “Getting Unstuck: Shift for Impact.”. If you haven’t had a chance to listen, you can here.