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Kids don’t know how to play on their own anymore. Here are four ways to change that.

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One of my favorite things in life is watching my children (ages 1.5 and 3.5) play by themselves and get totally absorbed in what they are doing. It’s amazing to see them learn and discover through play.

When my older child is playing, his imagination takes on a life of its own — I love overhearing the stories and scenarios he comes up with, and how he can stay focused and completely engaged in those moments. When I take my children to the playground, I see pure joy on both their faces and that happiness is contagious. Perhaps one of the greatest wonders of children is that they capture the unbridled bliss that adults have lost touch with.

Sadly, I continue to see many instances where play and joy are not highly valued with both younger and older children, and as a mental-health professional, I see it as detrimental to the healthy development of children. I also see this as a block to an enjoyable life for adults, who deserve fun and joy in their life as well.

We have largely become a culture of doing and excelling instead of just being and enjoying. I’m not saying that life should be full of leisure and nothing else — that’s not realistic or beneficial — but we need to place more value on a healthy balance where self-care and fulfillment are priorities.

I have spent years working with terminally ill people, and all those end-of-life regrets you may have heard about are true. People don’t regret working themselves into the ground, but they do regret not nurturing their relationships or not making more time for fun and pleasure. As Steve Jobs said at the end of his life: “The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me. What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love. That’s the true riches which will follow you, accompany you, giving you strength and light to go on.”

Because we have become such a work- and results-driven society, free, unscheduled play for children has taken a back seat. In fact, since 1955, free play has been declining. This lack of play affects emotional development and is thought to be leading the rise of anxiety, depression and other mental disorders in children. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of “Free to Learn,”  wrote on a blog post on Psychology Today, “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.

“We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression and other disorders,” he adds.

The lack of play, joy and outside movement and activity is also declining in our schools. Developmental psychologist and teacher Esther Entin is concerned with the lack of joy children are experiencing in schools and I agree with her. People don’t thrive on being pushed, or on fear-based consequences — that only creates anxiety. I see that kind of anxiety consistently in my psychotherapy practice with adults. The message that one should push themselves to the point of mental and physical exhaustion starts at a young age. An example of the dangers of fear-based motivation is this disturbing viral video from Success Academy in New York, of a teacher scolding a child for an incorrect answer.

Because many children spend most of their days at school, it is valuable and important to think about what they are experiencing at home, and the messages we are sending them about work vs. play. Here are a few tips to promote joy, fun and play at home:

Encourage your child’s unique strengths: Everyone has something they enjoy and usually we are pretty good at doing the things we enjoy. If your child truly enjoys an activity, encourage him to develop it. If the child loses interest in the activity and doesn’t want to do it anymore, listen to him. Forcing him to do something that is no longer enjoyable can hurt him in the long run and take the joy out of the activity. The purpose of hobbies and activities is enjoyment.

Encourage physical activity: It doesn’t have to be playing sports or engaging in a structured activity. Walking, running, going to a park or anything where you’re outside and moving is positive for everyone in the family. Not only is it healthy, but exercise increases joy through endorphins. For more ideas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some suggestions on how to keep children physically active.

Let your child play without intervention: Free play is thought to promote problem-solving skills, teach kids how to control their lives and help them develop their interests, thus creating a sense of self-sufficiency. Children are great at entertaining themselves — allow them to explore on their own as long as it is safe for them to do so.

Remember what it’s like to be a child: When you’re a child, the smallest things can inspire awe and wonder. If you can get in touch with those feelings from your own childhood, or even if you thought you were deprived of those moments as a child, think about how you want your child to feel. Fun doesn’t have to be about spoiling a child — it can be very simple, such as blowing bubbles in the back yard. It sometimes requires parents to give up a little control and embrace some chaos, but it’s worth it.
Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington, D.C. She has two children.

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