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 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 out of 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 Develop 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 said 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 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 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 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 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 typical 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 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 better regulated and happy, 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 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.

Don’t tell me to decrease screen time!

If there’s one thing that causes heated debate on social media, gets defenses up and brings out the worst side of already over-tired moms, it’s another blog post that tells us we’re doing it wrong.  Specifically, that your kids should be exposed to less screen time.

From what I’ve seen, whether it’s a celebrity influencer, a mommy blogger or a key opinion leader in a professional capacity, it doesn’t matter how much research is quoted, everyone skips to the last paragraph if they read it at all, and then feels down about failing their children.  Some have the defensive energy to argue it out with the other parents online, others add it to the list of overwhelm (not organic, not emotionally available, not recycled, not meat-free, too much busyness etc). Why the hype?  Why do we feel so strongly about these things and yet do so little to change it?

Technology is all-encompasing

As a paediatric occupational therapist, my bag of “work tools” has become considerably lighter.  No need for a calculator, stop watch, or diary.  These days I don’t even need my laptop!  A smartphone can do everything I need, and all my information is in one place.  Even the cards in my wallet are less, as medical aids, banks and shopping loyalty programs all switch over to apps.  Have a look at the apps of your phone, and imagine what your parents’ generation would’ve been carrying around in their place.  So as an adult, and more specifically a millennial, why wouldn’t I have phone that requires so much of my attention throughout the day?

No-one has navigated this before

A millennial is anyone born between 1980 and 2000.  So that means the first generation of millennials are just about to reach “middle age” or start having their “mid-life crises”.  And after that they’ll slide towards “maturity”, and later “old age”.  But no-one born into this techno-era has aged yet.  We don’t know what the effects of all this convenience will have had on our lives.  Do we know that some of it is positive?  Absolutely.  Can we foresee the negatives?  Maybe some of them.

These things are supposed to make life better

I’m reading such an alarming amount of articles on mental illness in children, and it scares me.  How can I care for the emotional well-being of my kids?  How can I know whether they’re ok?  Why is it that children are experiencing increased pressure and anxiety?  Maybe these articles are pushing me towards a positive action.

Children do not need much to develop well.  They need your love and attention.  They need routine and balance.  As the pace of society increases in response to being “busy” being made easier, we try to keep up but are failing.  It might be “convenient” to check email while your child has their swimming lesson, but you’ve also lost a chance to be off the grid for 30 minutes.  We can “chat” to our friends via Whatsapp, but we lose the opportunity for a heartfelt conversation, with eye contact and a physical hug, instead of LOL’s and emoticons.

As an OT I am so aware that we, and our children, are losing “touch” with reality i.e. losing our grasp on the tangible and physical world as we give way to virtual learning.  It is so important for your baby to see your face while you rock them and sing a lullaby, for your toddler to paint with real messy colours and feel the squish of brush as it touches the paper.  Your preschooler needs to know what a star’s points feel like, as he turns it to fit into the hole of the shape sorter.  Grocery shopping needs to be a literacy and mathematical journey – learning about brands and weights and prices and calculations. Your children need to rest their weary heads on your chest and hear the thump of your heart as you read a bedtime story.  Dinner time or tea time needs to be a quiet space in the day.  Maybe sometimes your school-going children had a day that was “fine”, but they need to know that on the day that wasn’t, there’s a safe space to come home to – a space without judgement or interruptions.

Hear me out, dear parent.  I am a mommy to two loud boys.  Having babies has been a difficult and sometimes isolating experience.  There have been days that Whatsapp has been my shout out for help when I just couldn’t manage.  Google has set my mind at ease about various kiddy problems I’ve never had to deal with before.  Messages from my husband when he’s running late help me to plan dinner time better and email on my smartphone means I can run a virtual business without getting a babysitter for my kids.  I understand.  I know the way that technology has seeped into every facet of your life.  I know that sometimes a moment of quiet to attend to something while the kids watch tv is a Godsend.  But I am going to dare say this : we all need to be more mindful about exposing our children to screens, and specifically unsupervised internet access.

Why?

  1.  They are always “on”.  There is never down time.  If you don’t teach them to put boundaries in place (and yes, by example), they will burn out from anxiety before high school.
  2. They are visually overstimulated.  Everything is busy, beautiful and appealing.  The abilities to touch, feel, and listen are being lost.
  3. When we’re addicted to screens, “normal” everyday experiences that are developmentally vital lack their appeal and are passed over.
  4. Social media is all about appearances. Being a teenager has always been hard enough.  Now you have to up your game.  And any mishaps will be screenshot and exploited.
  5. The popularity contest of tweens and pre-teens is having a negative effect on children’s self-confidence and sense of worth.
  6. Young kids are able to find their way around cyberspace without being aware of the inherent dangers, or being mature enough to deal with them.
  7. Screen time has replaced green time: we don’t get out in the fresh air, exercise our tree-climbing muscles and watch the clouds.
  8. App’s are being developed by the minute for every facet of your life: from your Bible to your exercise routine … don’t let an app replace you as a parent.

 

I’m not going to tell you to take away their screens.  You’ll tell me I’ll raise dysfunctional children who can’t navigate the world.  But I am going to beg you to be steadfast in making time, away from the busy world, to spend quality time with your children.  Not just for their mental health, but for yours too.