What can quarantine teach us about play?

I used to love reading, but after studying for too many years, and then having small children and being tired all of the time, I just lost my love of reading. I read when I have to, mostly for work. But thanks to lock down and multiple trips to medical facilities’ parking lots, I’ve had a book with me to pass the time. And I’m loving it!

The joys of autumn in the garden

I’m currently reading Perspectives on Play: Learning for Life. It is a wonderful book covering a wide range of topics, is well-researched and edited by thought leaders in the field. It confirms so much of what I believe about our communities, how I feel about education and about how children spend their time.

There is so much positive to be taken from play in the 0-3 year old category. Children are learning at such a rapid rate, that every opportunity for play holds a vital place in brain development. The opposite also holds true. Children deprived of adequate play opportunities suffer developmentally.

The deprivation suffered by children in orphanages has been well documented. But as suggested in our book Playvolution: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Valuable Experiences Through Play, what if middle class children could also suffer from play deprivation as a result of a top-down education structure, and over-scheduled days?

In Perspectives on Play, it is stated that “Anything that suggests a top–down model of early learning should be avoided, particularly the application of an outcome based curriculum” (p 121). Hold on. Hasn’t our country been fighting for outcomes based education for the longest time, to assist and prepare our children for the world? All of our nursery schools seem to want to impress parents with the wonderful outcomes (on formally structured reports) of their playful learning approaches. But when is it okay to structure our preschoolers’ play, and when should we just observe from the shadows?

This worldwide lock down has given parents a unique opportunity to observe their children in play, to notice whether they are able to play independently or not, and to decide how to structure daily routine. Many children, especially of preschool age, are thriving in a less structured, more flexible and more accommodating environment.

Studies have shown that “anxiety-provoking experiences in early life – which importantly link to over-busy, over-controlled lifestyles in working families and outcome-dominated care and education settings – increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can interact destructively with the biochemistry of the brain, particularly in the first three years of life” – Sims, Gguilfoyle & Parry (2006). “This has the potential to create ongoing problems for emotional regulation, by misaligning the biochemical mechanisms relating to emotional control in infancy”. They further explain that children experiencing ongoing stress have higher resting levels of cortisol, and take longer to return to baseline after individual stressful experiences. Besides the obvious emotional downside, higher cortisol levels are linked to memory and learning problems, and these children typically perform poorly at school.

But it’s not all about how busy the children are, but also how stressed the caregivers are. Vermeer and Van Ijzendoorn (2006) found that caregivers who show signs of stress while at work in daycare seemed to produce more stressed children. So while we might argue that we are forced to have our children in nursery schools so that we can work, the choice of a homely and happy care centre seems more important now than ever.

So how do these thoughts relate to our current lock down status?

Many children receiving occupational therapy services seem to be doing really well at home. They appear to be better regulated and happier, getting along with their family members, and not keen to return to school. On one hand this raises the alarm about our schooling systems, and how they contribute to stress in our children. On the other hand it is a wonderful feather in the caps of the parents who are working hard to keep their children happy and content at home.

It will be interesting to see what research develops as a result of the unchartered waters we are navigating. Do children thrive as a result of a slower pace? Are sibling relationships stronger? When will we see the effects of a longer period of isolation from their peers?

I’m sure there will be negative effects too. I think daily about the children removed from their school meals and caring teachers. I am also concerned about those with unlimited internet access, and infinite screen time.

We are living in uncertain times. That’s for sure. But we would do well to use our free time to read more about what we do know, and then think about what we don’t know. Because when we know better, we can do better.

Railroads and helicopters: the vehicles of bad parenting

There’s a quote up on the wall in my therapy room: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”.  It’s an old folk wisdom saying.  Yes be your child’s advocate, but to what extent will they be able to cope when you’re not around?

Here’s some interesting reading for those of you who enjoy commentary on the world as it stands, and more specifically how that might be affecting the development of our children. One such book is “The Coddling of the American Mind: how good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.  While I must admit that I have not read the book myself yet, this is why Mark Manson’s comments interested me:

  • The book describes why kids who grew up with smartphones are emotionally stunted, overly fragile and exhibiting mental health issues at alarming rates.  Yes, mental health.  Not just square eyes like our parents told us we’d get from watching too much tv. One of our previous posts commented on this specific issue.
  • The book focuses on cultural shifts that have happened over the past few generations, and doesn’t just jump on the band wagon of why “social media is so terrible and ruining our lives”.

According the  to the review (profanity warning!), Haidt and Lukianoff argue with a lot of convincing data that adolescents today are maturing emotionally and psychologically at lower rates and later than ever before. Their main targets are:

  • The ballooning dysfunction of school bureaucracies, who are now treating kids as customers rather than students.
  • The trend of “helicopter parenting,” where paranoid parents are coddling their children, protecting them from everything that is uncomfortable and/or potentially threatening.
  • Of course our favourite: The heightened expectations for academic achievement — most childhood development happens through playing with other kids. Kids these days play less than ever before, and when they do play, they are often isolated. Instead, they’re busy doing homework and prepping for college applications, sometimes as young as kindergarten.
  • There is also the obligatory “social media is ruining everything” chapter that we all know and love.

Gwilliamsfamilyeye also reviewed the book and had the following to say: “Lukianoff and Haidt are college professors who are watching how students act and the responses of the administrations. The authors are concerned about how “safetyism” is interfering with the ability of colleges to fulfill their mission. Safetyism shields young people from the experiences which will be uncomfortable in the short term but are necessary to develop the character and antifragility necessary to handle the challenges that life will present to them. The authors recognize that life is now more stressful for children than it was in the past and that true trauma can be disabling, but the definition of trauma cannot be allowed to creep until everything that someone doesn’t like is considered trauma.”

Safetyism.  Now that’s a new term for me but one that makes so much sense, especially in terms of all I’ve been reading about how we don’t let our children engage in enough risky play.  I’m a boy mom and guilty as charged.  I hate to see them take risks.  Maybe the trick is to watch over them a little less closely.  Is it even responsible parenting to say that?

Now you might not like doom and gloom predictions, the tech vs traditional upbringing decisions you have to make for your children on a daily basis, but take the time to read the excerpt below:

 “From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

To what extent does your child’s environment get adapted to cater for their needs on a daily basis?  To what extent are they being protected from risk and “trauma”, perhaps at the expense of becoming a well-functioning adult some day?

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The above article is intended to keep us open-minded as we navigate childcare together.  We all want the best for our children and find ourselves in unchartered waters.  We’d love to hear from you, but please be nice.  Any defamatory or discriminatory comments will be removed.