As I reflect on my own play memories it fills me with a sense of happiness and joy that inevitably brings a smile to my face. I was one of the lucky ones, with my childhood being full of freedom to explore the outdoors with a rich natural environment on my doorstep that automatically fostered the release of endorphins and serotonin. It was hard not to be happy in Mother Nature’s nurturing environment. I am however aware that not all children had opportunities like this and it begs the question, how does this affect their mental health?
I have had the pleasure of working with children and families for over 15 years and one uniting factor is their innate drive to PLAY! Although the children and adults that I have worked with displayed the desire to play sadly, they often did not know how. It was part of my role to teach them and I had the pleasure of observing parents becoming engrossed in play activities that they had not been allowed to experience during their childhoods. It was through this work that I discovered that not all children have been given their RIGHT to play and indeed some of their childhoods had been snatched away from them due to the circumstances, relationships and environments that they grew up in.
Many of the families and the children that I worked with did not have access to the outdoors, they often lived in cramped, overcrowded living arrangements with limited play opportunities. This alongside a lack of understanding and the advancement and overuse of technology meant that often a phone or tablet was used instead of rich play resources. When I talk about ‘rich play resources’ I do not mean expensive gadgets and toys, instead I refer to open ended and often natural resources, access to the outdoors whether it be in a park, a green space or playing on the street. I refer to uninterrupted time with children spent talking and playing alongside, and with them and I refer to giving the child the permission, space and freedom to truly explore, learn and experience.
It deeply sadness me to think that in this day and age children are not able to exercise their right to play, particularly when I reflect on my own experiences. In my memory, days were spent playing in the garden building snail houses with whatever sticks, leaves or Tupperware from the house that I could find, climbing trees and ‘helping’ my Dad in the garage. Literally translated, this meant me banging some nails into scrap wood and making what can only be described as sculptures that would rival Picasso’s paintings. Days were dwindled away whilst my friends and I were out on foot or on our bikes, exploring the beach, boatyards and rolling hills of the pitch and putt course. We built go karts with what we could find, we went body boarding, played games like 1,2,3 hunt or just sat around making shapes from the clouds, talked, made jokes or played clapping games.
One thing that all this had in common was the sense of freedom and independence. We were allowed to make our own play decisions and use resources that we decided would work well. There were no adults looking over our shoulders (although I am sure they were there), we didn’t have mobile phones, we didn’t have a voice of health and safety, instead it was up to us to explore and experiment within our own capabilities, and guess what, apart from a few bumps and bruises, nobody got seriously injured! These experiences allowed us to be pushed out of our comfort zone, to problem solve, to navigate social interactions, to cope with stress and ultimately to build resilience. It provided our growing brains with the scaffolding and mechanisms to support us to grow into physically and mentally strong adults.
I believe it is a lack of these play opportunities and experiences that is inhibiting children, they are unable to develop skills in problem solving, social skills and do not have opportunities to build resilience and cope with adversity. I believe that these missed experiences have manifested and contributed to a downward spiral of behavioural problems, mental health issues and subsequent social problems such as attachment issues, drug and alcohol misuse and high levels of unemployment in later life. In Northern Ireland, the mental health rates in children are at their highest recorded level ever, and an estimated 1 in 6 children and young people are experiencing mental health illness (www.niccy.org, 2017). For me this is a terrifying figure and this, alongside Northern Ireland having the highest rates of mental ill health in the UK makes me wonder if there are links to the history of ‘Our Wee Country’ and how The Troubles have acted as a ‘travelling bullet’ throughout the generations.
Now more than ever it is integral that we re-align with what our children need in order to support their developing brains and give them the best possible start. We need to understand that it is social interaction they need, it is ‘rich play resources’ and experiences as opposed to technology and money being spent on expensive toys that are discarded within a few days. In today’s society it IS ok not to be ok, and we need to re train our brains and teach our children that it is not weak to talk about emotion, rather give them permission to feel and foster a safe space to explore those feelings and help them understand and manage them.
In my household opportunities for ‘proper’ chats naturally fell in around family routines, for example at dinner or bedtime. I remember once, unbeknown to my parents, I had emptied my brothers lego box and ‘stolen’ some food from the cupboards so that my friend and I could go and build a secret den and have a picnic. This den happened to be further up the street in someone else’s garden and I had left the box with food in it to go back to later in the week. That night we had been watching a TV programme about rats getting into people’s house and I had become terrified that rats where going to get into this poor person’s house and give them all sorts of diseases. I felt that I had done something terribly wrong and didn’t want to confess to my parents and so my anxiety grew. That night, during our bedtime chats a simple opportunity to talk about our day enabled a conversation that alleviated my fears and anxieties and I knew that I could just get the box tomorrow and it would be ok.
Of course this is a trivial example, however it can be seen that a small issue in a child’s head can be blown totally out of proportion if opportunities are not present to talk about what they need to. Imagine the impact for those children experiencing extreme turmoil on a daily basis. Some children are experiencing really serious issues such as parental mental or physical illness, domestic violence, abuse or bullying. It only takes one secure and stable adult relationship to limit the impact that negative experiences can have on a child’s long term development (NICCY, 2012). This person doesn’t have to be a parent or relative, YOU could be that child’s ‘safe adult’. Make time for that child who looks up to you and who shows a willingness to engage with you, observe and notice in order to make even the smallest opportunity count.
If you take anything away from reading this, may it be PLAY – allow yourself to play, let the children play, and provide opportunities for chats and social interaction. Let’s get back to basics as it is EVERYONE’s responsibility to build a better future for every child.
Katherine Lindsay Dunlop
Service Delivery & Development Coordinator – Our Generation Project