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The Role of Play in Post-Pandemic Healing

How to reawaken our children’s sense of playfulness.

Key points

  • Play is one of the most natural vehicles for self-expression in children.
  • When children feel seen and heard through play, they are more likely to follow a parent's lead in areas outside of play.
  • Reawakening a child’s sense of playfulness can also provide joy and relaxation for adults.

By Kristen Estrella, LCSW and Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it could not be arriving at a more appropriate time. The weather is getting nicer, the school year is approaching its end, and it is time for a much-needed spring awakening in regard to mental health. I think we can agree that this year has wreaked havoc on our mental health, particularly on one of our most vulnerable populations: children.

 fizkes
Source: Getty Images: fizkes

In my practice with children and families, I have seen a rise in anxiety, depression, irritability, loneliness, stress, and behavioral challenges. Children who were once playful, active, and social have opted for electronics, such as video games, computer games, phones, and iPads to try to remain connected with peers and cope with pandemic boredom.

I often hear the struggles of parents who feel powerless in setting boundaries with technology because of the challenges of balancing working from home, online schooling, and parenthood. While this may have been necessary for survival, it also came at a cost. Many of us, both children and adults alike, seem to have lost our sense of playfulness. In addition, the addictive and numbing nature of electronics exacerbates mental health issues and negatively impacts attention, mood, and behavior.

As the world re-opens, it is more important than ever to help children disconnect from the virtual world and reconnect with the real one. In addition, children need an opportunity to heal from a year of collective loss and grief. For children, play is vital to social and emotional wellbeing. We all play before we learn to speak, and therefore play is the most natural vehicle for self-expression for children. Play allows children the opportunity to externalize the internal world, communicate feelings and experiences, feel connected and safe, regulate emotions, and process difficult life events.

Play promotes healing. That is why it is time to push the electronics aside and get back to our roots with some good old-fashioned play. Here are some tips to reawaken and ignite our children’s sense of playfulness:

1. Schedule time for play. We make time for activities that we value, and scheduling time for play communicates that it is a priority. Since this may be a change in the home, it may help if playtime is discussed in a family meeting. When children feel part of the process they are less likely to resist. Also, children are natural experts in play, so allow them to share their expertise.

2. Make room for “Special Time.” “Special Time” is 5-10 minutes of play in which your child chooses what toys to play, and you follow their lead. This provides a chance for children to feel empowered and in control. This is particularly important during a year where a lot has been out of their control. In addition, giving your child your undivided attention helps your child feel special and allows an opportunity for connection. When children feel seen and heard, they are more likely to follow your lead in areas outside of play. This is especially important if every school day has been feeling like a battle.

3. Create an activity wheel or a list. List toys and activities your child enjoys (excluding electronics). This will help you avoid the initial “I don’t know what to do” in response to the “go play” directive you give your child. Children sometimes become irritable and frustrated with changes, especially ones that involve giving up their beloved electronics. Options can help with the initial shift from electronic time to playtime.

4, Allow space for boredom. Boredom is the birthplace of creativity and therefore, an important feeling to experience and work though. If your child has been on electronics an excessive amount this year, you can anticipate that boredom may be an uncomfortable feeling for them because of the immediacy in which electronics resolve boredom. Decreasing electronic use allows us to reawaken our imaginations and opens our mind to the different possibilities that can only arise when we are a little bored.

 fizkes
Source: Getty Images: fizkes

5. Get silly. Silliness is both cathartic and contagious. Channel your inner child by listening to music and having a dance party with your child. Spontaneity and silliness is best fostered when we leave the board games in their boxes and allow time for unstructured play.

6. Get outside. Getting outside removes the temptation of sneaking the iPad and allows for an easier transition into physical and social play. Bringing your child to the park also gives them the chance to practice their social skills with peers and get back on track developmentally. In addition, fresh air and exercise does wonders for mood because of the mind-body connection.

The best part of reawakening your child’s sense of playfulness is that it will also reignite your own! Play has positive impacts on adult mental health due to its rejuvenating and relaxing nature. In addition, when we are experiencing mutual joy, we feel less isolated and more connected, which is more important than ever after a year of disconnection.

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