April 15, 2019

Play Reduces Childhood Stress

Breathe. Play. Relax.

April 16, 2019 is National Stress Awareness Day. A recent Gallup study shows that 80% of Americans are affected daily by stress. Nearly 50% of children are also feeling the effects of stress. While there are many approaches to stress management, play is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress in children. 

A study from 2010 by the American Psychological Association saw a disconnect between kids’ stress and how adults perceive their stress. Forty-three percent of children age 8-17 worry about family finances, doing well in school and/or getting into good college. These stresses often contribute to headaches, sleeplessness and stomachaches, and go largely unnoticed by parents: 13 percent think their children’s headaches are caused by stress and 44 percent of kids report sleeplessness, while only 13 percent of parents think their children have sleeping difficulties.

Free Play is the Way

Some of the best activities to help with stress are often the ones that take up the most energy, releasing lots of oxytocin and serotonin, thus making your children more relaxed and ready for bed. Free play, where children don’t have a structured schedule of what they are doing for playtime, is one of the best forms of play. It is a great way for them to focus on creative thinking, which allows them to forget what is troubling them. Kids are much happier after play, which helps to improve their behavior, increasing participation in the classroom and being a better listener when it’s time to do their chores at home.

Free play allows kids to develop emotionally, too. Since they are putting themselves in situations that they have created, they think about how to respond. By developing emotionally as a child, it may help reduce some anxiety disorders in the future. “Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders describe losing emotional control as one of their greatest fears. They are afraid of their own fear, and therefore small degrees of fear generated by mildly threatening situations lead to high degrees of fear generated by the person’s fear of losing control,” according to Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College. If kids don’t get the opportunity to play freely, they won’t be prepared to deal with their emotions correctly as they grow older. Free play also helps kids learn to play together and get along, among many other benefits, which can also decrease stress as they will have lots of friends to play with and talk to.

Free play is one of the best unstructured stress-free activities. However, more and more schools are incorporating structured relaxation techniques that can seem like play into classes like gym. Even activities like yoga are a good way to stretch muscles out and relax—and the poses are creatively named. Kids can have fun recreating each pose, pretending they are cats and dogs. These exercises demand attention and being present in the moment, so kids will be focusing on how their bodies are responding, not on how much homework they have. Exercise alone is a great way to relieve stress, so incorporating a walk into you and your child’s everyday schedule isn’t a bad idea either—just think of a way to make it interesting, like going on a nature walk or treasure hunt to find the biggest rock!

Sudden behavioral changes are a sign your child is stressed out, so take time to talk to your child and play with him/her so you’ll be able to notice certain changes. Play is an effective way to help children reduce stress, and it helps parents too!