‘It’s fun to have fun but you have to know how’… (and why)

Fun to have fun, how and why to have fun, Play, child's work, mental health, Emma Lambert

We know play is important.

We know play is important.  It is a child’s work.  But is there more to it?  With current media awareness around mental health and awareness I have been reflecting on how play can impact upon mental health.  Can play experiences help to create preventative measures?  Do we really have a mental health crisis or are we simply more aware?  This blog serves to provide a little ‘food for thought’.  It is a complex area and play is by no means the answer.  My musings here are not to over simplify, more to pose the questions.

Alarming stats

An article in The Telegraph 10.10.17 states that 1 in 5 British adults have had suicidal thoughts.  8 in every 100 are suffering from mixed anxiety and depression.  Mental tells us that 1 in 10 children and young people are affected by mental health issues.  This is staggering.  I wonder why?  Is it a recent issue or are we now simply more aware and perceptive to the needs of young people?

Fun to have fun, how and why to have fun, Play, child's work, mental health, Emma Lambert

Photo by Nghia Le on Unsplash

Peter Gray

Peter Gray (‘Free to Learn: What have we done to childhood’ 2013) suggests that the rise in depression and anxiety in young people links to a decline in the sense of personal control over their own fate, and that changes are to do with the way they view the world rather than the way the world is.  He suggests that anxiety and depression correlates significantly with a person’s sense of control and lack of control over their own lives.

Link with free play?

In other words – those who believe they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed. Gray does emphasise that just because there is a link doesn’t prove that the decline in free play causes the increase in anxiety, depression and helplessness.  But as he states, there is a strong logical case for such causation and one which I think is worth exploring further.

Correlation between control and self esteem

The question I want to address is, if there is a correlation between control and self esteem, are there preventative measures we can take with younger children.  Are there clues to future disposition?

Julien Rotter

Psychologist Julien Rotter developed the understanding of the concept of our locus of control.  Those with an internal locus of control fare better but today people are more orientated towards extrinsic goals (material rewards, opinions of others, high income, good looks…).  He goes on to explain that for young people these goals could largely be caused by a decline in opportunities for free play.

Freedom to explore independently

Play, directed towards intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals allows a freedom to explore independently and as such results in children:

  • Solving own problems
  • Controlling own lives
  • Development of own interests
  • Becoming competent in the pursuit of their own interests

Social media and instant gratification

Without play it could therefore be argued that children are depending more on the extrinsic goals (perhaps another topic altogether with instant gratification that social media now brings)

Self esteem at school

In school we know that self esteem plays a significant factor in a child’s ability to learn.  We know that happy, safe, emotionally secure children are more willing and able to learn effectively:  More willing to take risks, approach challenges and subsequently make greater progress.

How to develop positive thinkers

So what of play? How do we teach them through this?  How do we develop positive thinkers, with a high self esteem?Gray suggests that free play is nature’s way of teaching children that they are not helpless.  My experience has shown me the same.  When playing away from adults children clearly do have control and can practise asserting this.  With increased control over decisions behind the play,they create their own rules, solve their own problems and therefore learn to co-operate as an equal among their peers.  As a parent I recognised the importance of this in the home.  Playing together, allowing the child to dictate the play builds this sense of control.  It is the same with food – we’ve all been there!  The stress as a child refuses to eat?  There’s a connection here:  “I can control what happens here” thinks the pre schooler, “what fun!” Surely a case for allowing more free play!

Kitcamp helps children control their bodies

Importantly, to us at Kitcamp, vigorous outdoor play provides opportunities for children to find ways to control their bodies and certain amounts of fear as they assess their own levels of risk and physical challenge.  Equally beneficial, in social play they learn to negotiate, modulate and resolve conflict.  Observing children with one kit trying to build three dens highlighted this as they negotiated swapping pieces, argued about how to construct and ultimately agreed on the final builds.

Hara Estroff Marano

Hara Estroff Marano explains how play helps children to control themselves and to interact with others and through play cognitive agility really develops. What if Gray is right when he suggests that we are creating a world in which children must supress their own instincts, where paths are laid out for them by adults and where we are “literally driving young people crazy”.  This may sound extreme but in my mind it is backed up by solid evidence, from research, statistics and my own experience in schools.  Ironically it is still us as adults controlling the provision but the more we can set up independent and free play, the more opportunities children will have to develop many of the skills needed to build a positive self esteem.

Positive impacts

To finish, let’s take a quick look at some of the practical aspects:  What do we know about mental health and well being for adults?There are many positive impacts:

  • Feelings of achievement and making a difference leads to a feeling of being in control
  • Being creative , especially in nature. There is evidence that having our hands in the soil brings a bout a sense of truly connecting with nature
  • Exercise
  • Fresh air
  • Mindfulness
  • Not comparing oneself with others
  • An appreciation of quality of life, not materialistic

Practical aspects

How does this translate to children, more specifically when playing?

  • Controlling the play, there is evidence that this is important to pre schoolers; it is empowering and often the only time they have full and genuine control (often this is why a toddler refuses to eat – it is one of the first areas they realise they have control – need to check for research evidence on this one)
  • Creating own games, construction, art – the creative process outweighs the end product
  • Gardening and outdoor play brings fresh air, exercise and a connection with nature.
  • An enjoyment of the qualities of others
  • Freedom

Ten tips

The Mental health foundation outlines top ten tips for looking after mental health, those that have relevance here are…

….To talk about feelings.  There is a saying that to children the little things are the big things, and that if we take time to listen to the little things then they will more readily talk about the bigger things when they come along.  Opportunities to encounter problems, solve issues will surely help to build this emotional literacy and equip them with these skills.

…To keep active.  Needs no explanation really.  Get them moving!

…Do something you’re good at; lose yourself in an activity which helps to combat stress as you become fully focussed.  Furthermore the sense of achievement is undoubtably good for self esteem.

It would seem then that play can and does have a positive impact, as practitioners we have a key role to play in ensuring these experiences are powerful and enriching.

More reading

TED talks:   Why You should take time to play, Play is more than just fun, 6 types of play

Podcasts:  All in the mind

The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders, The Mission

Read our blog post : “Let them lead the way…


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2 thoughts on “‘It’s fun to have fun but you have to know how’… (and why)

    • Thank you for your comment Fabienne. Emma also wrote “I am in a Factory” where she highlights the benefits of role play. Good reading! Stephanie

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