Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in the UK has risen greatly in the last five years.
The large declines in the amount of children’s free play shown in recent decades have been identified as one of the reasons for such increases in youth mental health disorders(1). Often due to an overload of extracurricular activities and technology stimulation, many children are lacking unstructured, self-directed play time.
What is play?
Play is described as:
'A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective'. (2)
In other words play is where children are allowed to play in whichever way they choose, without adult direction or any set motivation other than to enjoy.
So why is play so important?
Play can help children to develop with a huge range of areas. This includes self expression, self discovery, problem solving, language, cognitive and social-emotional skills.
Play also helps children have a greater understanding of the environment around them, by playing out what they are experiencing in an imaginary world. This also allows them to practice ways of dealing with any problems or challenges they come across.
Extensive evidence shows correlations between the complexity of a child’s play and their emotional wellbeing(3) as well as their awareness of emotional processes and their development of strategies to control them(4). This means that children who are not given time to free play, are at higher risk of anxiety, depression and other disorders.
For this reason, I would like to encourage parents to schedule unstructured play time for their children. Time away from their screens, expectation, grading and direct adult supervision, where they can set their own agendas and just be.
Play in counselling
Play is also a vital tool in counselling children as it allows them to communicate and express their emotions and feelings that they may find difficult to do with words. Sand, small figures, musical instruments, puppets, clay, arts and craft materials are all usually available in therapy sessions.
Using play in a therapeutic way can help to facilitate healing and the development of new patterns of thinking and behaviour, enabling the child to become more resilient to everyday challenges.
Other benefits of therapeutic play include:
Reduced anxiety about traumatic events
Improved confidence and a sense of competence
Better able to form healthy bonds in relationships
Improved ability to trust themselves and others
Enhanced creativity and playfulness
If you would like more information about counselling with children and young people, please get in touch at email@example.com
Chudakoff, H.P. (2007). Children at Play: An American History. New York: New York University Press.
PTUK. (2017). Definition of Play. [online] Available at: http://playtherapy.org.uk/ChildrensEmotionalWellBeing/AboutPlayTherapy/MainPrinciples/PlayDefinition
Bornstein, M. H. (2006) On the Significance of Social Relationships in the Development of Children’s Earliest Symbolic Play: an Ecological Perspective. In A. Göncü, and S. Gaskins (Eds.), Play and Development: Evolutionary, Sociocultural and Functional Perspectives. (pp. 101-129) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Whitebread, D. (2012). Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education. London: Sage.