“Dr. Linda, my 9-year-old complains that he doesn’t get to play enough. I want him to stop wasting time on playing and to focus on his studies so he does well in school. What do you think?  Is play important?

I know this answer may surprise you but my recommendation is to let your son play! Of course, he needs to pay attention to his studies but as an aware parent, it’s important that you encourage him to play, especially if he has a problem with anxiety.

Play is not a waste of time, it teaches kids skills that are helpful both now and in the future. Kids with anxiety, in particular, tend to have extra challenges getting enough play which increases their anxiety and causes them to lose out on learning and practicing valuable skills which would lower their anxiety levels, and increase their feelings of power and self-esteem.

Free play is any unstructured activity a child does on their own because they enjoy it: Running and jumping, playing tag or dress up, finger painting, playing with play dough and building fortresses. Team sports and martial arts aren’t free play because they’re structured and include rules that have to be followed.

 Play is so important that at a recent world economic summit in Davos, a group of CEOs got together to launch their group “Real Play Coalition” which they founded to educate governments, schools and parents worldwide about the importance of play. The coalition’s aim is to make sure kids get enough free playtime to develop the skills that make humans irreplaceable by computers and robots such as creativity and imagination. 

Recently  a poll of parents in 10 countries  showed that 56% of kids play outdoors less than an hour a day. 10% of kids never play outside and 60% of parents said their kids play less than they did  when they were kids. Scientists think this  lack of play may be a major ‘player’ in the dramatic rise in mental health issues like anxiety and depression in kids.

Did you know that when you take time to let loose and play with your kids you lower their stress levels and yours? All children, especially kids with anxiety, need to feel close to you to feel safe and supported. What better way to do this than through play?

It may look like playing kids are just ‘wasting time’ when in fact they’re learning and practicing important skills.

Free play develops kids’ creativity, agility and problem solving.

Did you know that while kids are running, jumping and playing hopscotch they ’re figuring out how to control their bodies while they’re strengthening them? That they’re developing their brains and problem-solving skills too?  When a child comes up against something they can’t do, they don’t quit, they figure out new ways to do it!

If you have a child with anxiety, trying something new may activate their stress response. As an aware parent it’s up to you to guide them through their stress and coach them to try, and try again till they succeed. Teach them that failure is just a stepping stone on the way to success and that nobody does things perfectly the first time. Remind them of when they were learning to walk. They didn’t get up and walk across the room the first time they tried, they started by taking one or two steps and fell down. Then they got up and tried again, day after day till they were walking. Kids love to hear about when they were babies and through this story you’re reminding them of how successful they were in learning how to do something tough which feels good, increases their self-confidence and their willingness to try new things.

Free play also helps kids develop good people skills. They learn how to talk to other kids, negotiate to get what they want, use self-control and how to manage their strong emotions. They also learn, with time and proper help from you, how to resolve conflicts.

Sammy learns very quickly from other kids’ reactions that throwing temper tantrums every time he doesn’t get what he wants is not a good way to make friends. He has to come up with ways to manage his frustration and figure out the normal give and take that happens between kids when they play.

Many kids with anxiety are afraid of being rejected by other kids, some of them may get aggressive, rejecting before they’re rejected and others may avoid playing with other kids altogether.

If your child is having problems making friends, watch her with other kids to see exactly what’s going on. If she tends to ‘fly off the handle’, teach her techniques to manage her strong emotions. If she tends to avoid other kids talk to her about how all kids are afraid, just like she is, but they hide it. Another thing you can do is ask your child if there is one person she’d like to be friends with and invite that child over for a playdate because it’s easier for kids with anxiety to deal with kids one on one.

What challenges do you have getting your kids to play? How do you manage them? I would love to hear about it?

Have a happy healthy day,