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Play could be our secret weapon in the mental health crisis

Is the answer to the increasing mental health needs of our youth as simple as letting them play? It’s certainly a large part of the solution to the crisis we’ve created.

Our kids spent last Wednesday playing at school. Not just at recess or at lunch, but all day. Classroom time was given over to kid-led unstructured play. The guidelines for this Global School Play Day state that educators should allow the children to decide what to play with, when to play with it, and how to play with it. “Don’t interfere … try to be invisible and let the kids play.”

A day of play might seem like a quaint idea, especially to those of us who grew up with a lot of unstructured play, or those who don’t understand the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between children being active and children being allowed to govern themselves and learn through play. But the research points to all that we’ve lost and all we have to gain by giving into such a simple idea.

Global School Play Day organizers encourage everyone to watch the video of a Tedx talk by Dr. Peter Gray, a psychology researcher who studies play from an evolution viewpoint. He begins his talk by reminding us that all mammals play as youth, stating that “play came about in the course of natural selection” because it offers animals the opportunity to practice physical, social, and emotional skills. Playful behaviour teaches animals to cooperate, to regulate their tempers, to experience fear. Gray notes this is “a lesson that can save their lives.” The same goes for our kids.

Gray talks of research that shows today’s children are more depressed than those who lived through the Great Depression, experiencing more daily anxiety than youth living under the threat of Cold War. Suicide rates for youth ages 15 to 20 have doubled, while suicide rates for younger children have quadrupled since the mid-1900s. Gray then points to all the ways in which we’ve decreased our children’s time to play, their ability to exert control over an aspect of their life and to learn valuable coping skills by doing so.

We all play a role in returning play to our children. We must create situations that allow them to explore without interference, such as the adventure playgrounds gaining popularity in Europe or creating neighbourhood spaces that are kid-only zones. We must look closely at the value of initiatives like Global School Play Day and continue to infuse our children’s learning with play-based opportunities.

And we don’t need to look to outside experts for research or guidance. The New Brunswick Heath Council has been collecting local data on our children’s mental health, physical wellbeing, and more. The Atlantic Wellness Centre has been sharing stories of our youth confronting their challenges. Our educators are trying to work within their system to create change.

Gray implores his audience to “stand up against the continuous clamour for more school.” I agree; having our children sitting in classrooms longer will not improve our lives. Sure, it’s possible an hour more a day could move the needle on those standardized test scores. And obviously I believe that literacy and numeracy and everything else we teach and test is important. But my children’s health, particularly their mental health, is more important. In ten years when my children are graduating high school, I care much more that they have the practical skills to adapt to life’s challenges, the self-esteem and self-awareness to ask for help when they need it, a natural instinct to empathize and socialize, then to score a few points higher than Ontario kids on their standardized tests.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript in 2019. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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