Last year I noticed something new in the halls of our elementary school. Outside the music room was a huge mural - clearly made by children – that asked fellow students, “Stressed Out?” The poster offered gentle advice on how to deal: “Breathe”, “All We Have is Here and Now”, Think Calm Thoughts, This Too Will Pass, “Read a Good Book”.
The phrases were carefully lettered in crayon with child-like printing, which to me made it all the more surprising and sad. Sixth-graders, experienced in being over-stressed, were giving advice to second graders to help them adjust to being over-stressed.
When we think of stress for grade-school children, we typically think of some anxiety surrounding a teacher, or a particular subject they dislike, or perhaps they’re worried about a kid that bullied them in the past. But stress in the younger grades is now much more complicated than that. If you are a parent, you know about the homework, the after-school activities, the smartphones, the competitive athletics, the lack of down time. In terms of schedules and pressure – nine is the new 15. But did you realize that our children are so stressed out they need to tell each other “Breathe” because “This Too Will Pass”?
What I See
In my duties as an instructional aide I see children in class, at lunch and at recess. I see how they learn, how they play, and I overhear their conversations. Last year I heard a 6th grade girl moan to her friend on a Friday afternoon “I don’t know when I’m going to do my homework. I have a game tonight, a birthday party for my cousin tomorrow and another game on Sunday. I’m so stressed out.”
This 11 year old kid had every minute of her weekend planned, and none of it included free play – none of it included any freedom. Every minute was spoken for. No wonder she was stressed. She felt she had no breathing room.
Topping it all off is that even when the kids are “free” they are on their phones, which puts them under pressure to be on Snap or Instagram or the latest social media fad. It’s yet another way they need to conform and measure up.
I don’t know when adults became confused about what childhood is supposed to look like. Most of us had a childhood that included plenty of play –why do we think it needs to be different for our kids? Perhaps at some point prevailing wisdom dictated that we could “improve” our kids if we gave them lots of scheduled activities and lessons instead of just allowing them to play. But the past 10 years have proven that flat wrong. Children are more overweight, more anxious and less confident than ever.
What can parents do?
Ask your child if they feel they have enough time to play. Especially if they seem stressed. Make sure they seem to be answering honestly, not just giving you the answer they think you want to hear. They may have subliminally gotten a message from our culture that they are too old to play and feel embarrassed about asking for it.
Trust me – nine, ten, or eleven years old is not too old to goof around on a playground. I see them do it every day at recess. They are not allowed to have their phones, and there is minimal adult supervision, so they are free to play as they like. They play made up games, they play tag, they pretend to be super heroes. They play old-style games like Four Square and Red Rover. They play boys-chase-girls. They do cartwheels. They dig in the sand for “treasures” and make piles of old bottlecaps and other trash and then guard their booty. They scream and show off. They act like kids. It’s fantastic.
Play is the way kids reduce their stress. We can’t change their world. But we can help them to cope with stress by making sure play is a part of it. Protecting their play time is the first step in teaching them how to care for themselves. They get one childhood. It should be fun.