In a Nation of Stressed Kids, Doctors Prescribe Playtime

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Smart toddler girl wearing big glasses while using her laptopFor infant babies, getting them to fall asleep can be a nightmare itself. Sleep training is recommended for babies between three to five months in age. Once the kids are a littler older, though nap time remains essential, play time is extremely important.

Studies show that stress during childhood can have negative physical and emotional consequences throughout life. As school and extracurricular activities return full-swing this fall, doctors are prescribing playtime to help relax stressed kids.

The consequences of too much stress in childhood are well documented. According to Medical News Bulletin, one study from Scientific Reports showed that childhood stress can alter the way genes are expressed in adulthood. Children who experienced things like abuse, neglect, and other difficulties were more likely to have behavioral problems, mood disorders in adulthood, and different DNA methylation patterns in genes related to adulthood stress responses.

Another study looked at how specific, large-scale stressful events impact children. As the Quartz reports, the study focused on the 2008 financial crisis, finding that the sudden economic downturn created stress and associated negative effects in children during their formative years. Kids who faced neglect or other hardship when parents could no longer afford to provide basic needs were then more likely to experience mental health problems, low rates of employment, and higher rates of substance abuse as they became adults.

Yet, over the course of the last ten years, many families’ economic situations have improved. So why are parents bringing their children to doctors for stress-related treatments now?

In a recent article, the Quartz points to overscheduling and lack of playtime. Due to ever-increasing pressures for high academic performance, 30% of kindergarteners in the United States no longer have recess. Fewer parents give young children time for free play, with a 25% decrease in the average playtime between 1977 and 1997.

Instead of playtime, many parents are choosing to enroll children in activities designed to teach them skills and develop talents early that may help their life chances in later years. From music lessons to science tutoring to sports, kids have schedules that sometimes resemble an adult’s. In fact, 36 million kids in the U.S. play organized sports each year, and according to the US Census Bureau, in 2014 nearly six in ten kids were involved in extracurricular activities.

Doctors are pushing back.

Randomized trials showed that physical play in 7-9 year-olds enhanced “attentional inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and brain functioning that suggested better executive control.”

Quartz also reported that pretend play helped kids build self-regulation skills.

Because of this data, doctors say that sometimes, parents don’t know best. Letting children explore their own environment, away from adult social pressures, is best for their health, intelligence, and their happiness. After all, the effects of stress in children are long-lasting and toxic. Letting kids play freely can help them become happier adults.

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