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Stressed Out in America: 5 Reasons to Let Your Kids Play

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CHILDREN PLAYING
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It's no big secret that children are currently on the fast track to success. What kind of success they might find at the end of this high-pressure race remains to be seen, but they are being pushed to succeed everywhere they turn.

Children, it seems, are losing childhood.

I recently took a call from a friend who needed guidance, and a little bit of support, as she wrestled with a frustrating and overwhelming situation. Her little girl, a first grade student at a private school in California, is struggling with intense academic pressure. While her daughter is performing well in school overall, test anxiety makes some days harder than others and the amount of homework coming home each night triggers tears of frustration fairly regularly. And when the work is finally done each day, there is hardly any time left for play. At 7 years old, her daughter can't find time to play.

It's a story I hear too often, from friends and clients alike. Children are so burdened by pressure that they don't have time to be children.

Academic pressure is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to fast tracking childhood, though. Yes, learning is accelerated across the board, but so is childhood in general. We've experienced a gradual cultural shift in this country, and it's becoming more and more prevalent with each passing year.

It's true that young children are more likely to face intense academic pressure right now, but they are also overloaded with extracurricular activities. They play competitive sports (sometimes two sports during each "season"), they take the best music and art classes available, they join community-based programs and they fill their weekends with play dates and parties.

Children are losing childhood because they aren't given the gift of time to play. That cultural shift -- that intense need to raise competent successful people? That responsibility belongs to all of us. As a country, we need to wake up to the increased stress levels among children and learn how to dial it back. If we want to raise happy kids, we need to start by taking back childhood.

In a recent article in The Independent, Boston College Professor and Researcher and author of "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life", Peter Gray, addressed the need for more unstructured playtime for children. Gray maintains that some of the most important skills children need to learn are not taught in the classroom. Play is the vehicle by which children learn to relate to others, to solve problems, and to regulate their emotions.

I couldn't agree more. Play is so much more than the characters children take on and the storylines that develop. Through play, children learn to master their fears, assert their needs, process and cope with their emotions, and learn to get along with others. Play helps children resolve conflict and relieve stress.

And yet, many children lack sufficient time to engage in child-directed unstructured play. Children are so busy with academics and so overloaded with adult directed activities that they don't have time to simply be children.

It's time to make a change. As parents, we can't control the amount of academic pressure that our children face each day, and we certainly can't control the amount of homework that comes home each night, but we can change how we help our children when they are at home. We can rethink our priorities and make changes to the their schedules so that they have time to get back to the business of play.

5 Reasons to let your kids play:

1. Stress relief:

Play provides an opportunity for young children to process and work through the negative emotions they encounter throughout the day. Being a kid might seem like all fun and games, and perhaps their "problems" seem insignificant at times, but they do encounter stress along the way. heir problems feel big and overwhelming to them.

Children work through all kinds of emotions when engrossed in unstructured play. They might start out feeling stressed, but once lost in a world of imagination, they gradually let go of their stress and restore a sense of calm.

2. Emotional regulation:

Parents often ask me how to teach their children the art of emotional regulation. Little kids tend to have very big feelings and they often react before they have time to even process the event that triggered the feelings.

Through play, children learn to control their impulses and work through their emotions. They learn to find the triggers and problem-solve potential solutions.

3. Better social interaction skills:

Unstructured group play is the best way to let kids work on social interaction skills. When engrossed in group play, kids have to learn how to cooperate, resolve conflicts, empathize with others, and relate to peers.

4. Promotes creative problem-solving:

You can memorize answers to math questions (and you can even memorize strategies to solve difficult math problems), but you can't memorize ways to solve real-life problems. What if a puzzle piece goes missing? What if another child is left out of a group? What if the tower just won't stay up?

Children face a variety of problems each day, and these problems vary by age and stage. They have to learn how to step back and evaluate a situation before giving up or becoming hysterical. They have to learn how to think outside of the box. And that is something they can learn through the power of play.

5. Promotes learning:

The great irony of increasing academic pressure at the expense of unstructured play is that play actually promotes learning. Have you ever watched kids dump out a recycling bin and build something from nothing just because they felt like it? It takes planning, creative thinking, cooperation and resourcefulness to transform a bunch of old cardboard into a monster truck show, you know.

Play is the most natural learning style for children. They learn from play from the very first moment they shove wooden blocks into their mouths and they continue to learn through more advanced play as they grow.

So go ahead and say no to that party this weekend, speak up when the academics become overwhelming and start cutting back on those extracurricular activities. Happier, and less stressful, days are ahead for children. All you have to do is let them play.