Family Habits Mind & Body Mindset Parenting Relationships

Connect With Children Through Purposeful Play

I recently asked a friend what she had been up to and she answered, “Not much. I’ve just been playing with my kids.”

I asked her to restate her answer without “Not much” and without the word “just.” With a quizzical look, she obliged. I then asked her, “Didn’t that feel better?” She agreed that it did.

You might be surprised at the power of play. Even when we’re busy—and who isn’t busy—play can be a priority for our children and us. “I’ve been playing with my kids” is a goal to set and meet.

What do you think of when you think back to your childhood? Many of us think of the many “little” things that made up quality family time. Some big things will make the list. For me, being shocked with the gift of a viola when I was 12 is on my list. After renting one for a while, my parents knew I was serious about learning how to play and improving my skill. Buying me my own viola communicated their belief in me. That was more valuable to me than the gift itself.

But it’s the consistency of “little” things that are actually “big.” These experiences, like playing with siblings and parents, school performances, family dinners, and holiday traditions, define childhood for most of us.

Children Should Play Now

Many children, regardless of age, haven’t been able to live as children during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had to learn online, isolated from friends. They’ve had to work at home, rather than play at home. In addition to typical chores, many cared for siblings and helped their parents, who were distracted and extra busy working from home. Having parents close-at-hand but unavailable can be confusing for a child.

This summer, let’s give them back their childhood. We can’t allow children to be defined by what they lost during the COVID crisis. Let’s give them a summer to remember, one that they’ll want to look back on. Lately, Fred Rogers’ statement, “Play is the work of childhood” hasn’t been true. Let’s change that going forward.

Play With Children

One of my saddest encounters with a child occurred when I researched how children believe parents’ phones affect them. At a park play area, a young boy’s countenance changed from happy-go-lucky to sad as he shared, “I wish my mom played with me instead of taking pictures of me playing.” I’ve heard this echoed by many, many children throughout the years.

Some people have said, “Love is spelled T-I-M-E.” To a large extent, that’s true. “Like” is also spelled T-I-M-E. Children frequently tell me, “My parents have to love me. I wish they liked me.” They follow this with, “My dad sometimes plays with me, but I don’t think he wants to play my game with me. I wish he wanted to,” and, “My mom tells me to ‘go play,’ but I like playing best with her. She’s always busy. If she liked me more, maybe she’d want to spend time with me.”

I respect that you’re busy. I fully recognize you had to think about whether you had the time to read this article. Every minute matters to busy parents. That’s why saying “yes” to our children encourages them deeply. Playing with them communicates both love and like!

When children invite us to play with them, they notice when we stop working, reading our book, or visiting with a friend to say “yes.” When we initiate play without them asking, they notice. When we prioritize them, they feel loved. They know they’re loved. But it goes deeper than that. They also feel liked.

What’s the value of your children knowing you like them? They’ll feel known, which is the heart’s desire for everyone. They’ll feel wanted, which meets a need we all have. Because they’re known and wanted, they’ll feel safe with you. This makes everything more positive. Children’s behavior will be more consistent. Security also increases cooperation, confidence, and obedience. But there’s still more.

When we prioritize liking children, we’ll have meaningful and personal conversations instead of interrogations. Thoughts and feelings tend to merge during conversations stimulated by play, and both are strengthened. They get to know us just as we get to know them a bit better. Because we’ve gotten to know each other beyond “mom, dad, and child,” children will discover what they have in common with us. “Mom, you liked games like this when you were my age? Cool! And your mom played with you? We’re like you and your mom except now you’re the mom!” or “Dad, I liked playing catch today and hearing your great baseball story. I didn’t know you weren’t a very good player at the beginning either. Now I can believe you when you say I can improve.”

Play for the Heart

Through play, parent-child relationships can again be defined by joy and togetherness rather than disappointment and separation. In addition, by simply prioritizing play, frustration, fatigue, and anger can decrease. The mental health benefits are real.

Playing to take a break from technology and the intensity of work is good for everyone. It leads to more rest. Stress lifts and confusion dies out. Contentment and clarity result. Loneliness and isolation are replaced by renewed relationships and fellowship.

Character can grow. When children only play games by themselves on their devices, they can quit games they might lose, develop pride when they win, and get angry when they don’t.

When children play with others, they’re more likely to develop self-control and learn humility when they win and patience and teachability when they lose. They can learn sacrifice, selflessness, and respect for others as they let siblings choose what outdoor game to play, help younger siblings learn new board games, and celebrate someone else’s victory.

Learning resiliency, helping children to bounce back quickly from disappointment and defeat, might be among the best reasons to prioritize play this summer and beyond. Our children have experienced a lot of loss. Negativity and fear are common. We can’t allow children to be so overwhelmed by it all that they’re defined by loss.

When children aren’t chosen first, or a sibling knows more than they do at a museum, or they accidentally knock over their carefully built tower, our presence helps them mature. We can encourage them to try again, play again, ask again, and show up again. They can develop resilience.

Play for the Mind

All kinds of play are good for the mind. Children—and adults—are smart in eight different ways. Through a variety of play, each intelligence can be awakened and strengthened. Knowing and planning for this adds value to our play. Remember, no one “just plays with their kids.” When you play with them and plan various rich play experiences for them, you’re increasing their intelligence. Tell your friends that the next time they ask you what you did all day. For example:

The word-smart part of the brain uses words. Play word games, talk and listen, read together, enjoy learning and using new words, write and produce plays and skits, read and listen for enjoyment and to learn from different websites, and more. Go to the library and bookstore.

The logic-smart part of the brain uses questions. Play games that require factual recall, cause-and-effect thinking, and predicting; enjoy nonfiction books and presentations on sites like YouTube; read mysteries, building things and asking questions while you do; enjoy inventing a solution for something; and more. Go to museums.

The picture-smart part of the brain uses your eyes and pictures. Color, create, play games that require visual recall, read picture books and talk about the illustrations, build and design everything from the doll’s bedroom to an organizational system for the laundry room, and more. Go to art museums and craft stores.

The music-smart part of the brain uses rhythms and melodies. Make noise, sing songs, write and perform funny musicals for relatives, play instruments, compare ringtones and alarms, and more. Go to musicals, concerts, and music stores.

The body-smart part of the brain uses movement and touch. Make designs with sidewalk chalk, play old-fashioned tag, play catch, ride bikes, “wrestle” with dad, build tall towers, join a sports team, create dance movements, and more. Go to sporting events and the playground.

The nature-smart part of the brain uses patterns. Hike, fish, go camping, walk around the neighborhood, garden, read books about animals, spend time outside, play games that use patterns, collect things according to their designs, and more. Go to the zoo, park, pet stores, and animal shelters.

The people-smart part of the brain uses talking with other people. Invent something together; tell people why you like the music, art, and games you do and learn what they like; teach someone to play one of your favorite games; spend time with people; and more. Go listen to speeches and debates.

The self-smart part of the brain uses reflection. Play by yourself, make choices, do quiet activities, write poems and songs that express how you’re feeling, and more. Go where they want to go—a museum, park, store, etc.

Play On Purpose

Some children and families have done better than others during the past year. No matter your situation, remember that play has purpose. Relationships, the heart, and the mind can all be strengthened. Don’t “just” play with your kids. Play!

Dr. Kathy Koch (“cook”) is the founder of Celebrate Kids and Ignite the Family, a faculty member at Summit Ministries, and the author of five books including “8 Great Smarts” and “Start with the Heart.” Dr. Koch earned a Ph.D. in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University.

Mind & Body

Screened Out

Mindfulness and meditation may be growing in popularity, but so is their opposite: digital distraction.

Our kids often spend more time on screens than sleeping. This lack of sleep along with the risks of online predators and pornography are obvious problems with today’s teen screen culture.

But another big problem often gets overlooked: chronic stress. This stress can affect your child’s development, rob them of wonderful opportunities, and change their personality. It is also a significant contributor to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and teen suicide.

Gaming is not always relaxing

When my oldest son began gaming three to five hours a day, I knew he was wasting time.

I didn’t know that while he was climbing the leaderboard, his stress hormones were climbing to new levels, too. His adrenal glands were releasing surges of adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in higher blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and a boost of energy to fight, in this case, a virtual enemy.

I missed all the signs of toxic stress: My son was irritable, stayed up all night, had angry outbursts, and was easily depressed. I even noticed stains on his pants from wiping his sweaty hands during gameplay.

I thought gaming was what he did to relieve stress. I thought he deserved a break from his homework; he was a straight-A student and needed downtime. Even when we got to the point where we felt like we were losing him, it never crossed my mind that the stress from his game was hurting him mentally and physically. It was a game, so how could it be stressful?

I now know that gaming (as well as social media use) can be one of the least relaxing downtime activities for a child. The stress that it can cause will wreak havoc on a developing brain and change a teen’s adult life. This is the underlying reason that this new cultural norm—a video game and smartphone in the lap of every child—can make childhood today the most anxiety-filled stage of development.

Social media may not be violent in the same way video games are, but the fear of being left out and suffering a social cancellation also triggers biochemical stress responses. Due to the importance of relationships in our lives, the fear of a social death can be especially stressful, leading to anxiety and despair.

Everything new seems fun 

The job of every video game and social media platform is to keep their users hooked. The job of every parent is to make sure your child isn’t one of the captured.

The persuasive elements of games and social media—rewards, upgrades, comments, likes, and hearts—are similar to those used to addict gamblers at the casino; that is easy to understand. What is harder to grasp are the additional factors used on these platforms to keep our kids hooked: novelty and fear.

Humans crave novelty, a seemingly benign element that everyone loves. All games have constant novelty: new levels, new skins, new music, and new worlds. Feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are activated by new developments in the game. The more excitement, the more dopamine is released. The novelty hook is a sure winner for the game designers, but if it doesn’t keep your child’s eyes glued to the screen, fear might.

Gaming is life or death to the revved-up brain

The element of fear is around the corner in every game, even the E-rated ones. Why? Because game designers know that the fear of dying produces more adrenaline and keeps the player engaged.

If a child is playing a nonviolent game, they may have to avoid falling down a hole or lava pit, kick a turtle, or dodge a fireball all before the timer runs out. If they are playing a violent game like Fortnite, they must fight for their life to stay alive and in the game. Both types of games are simultaneously thrilling and stressful.

Parents struggle to understand the ramifications of this fear factor. For an adult, the threat of losing a character in a game is trivial. For the child, these virtual deaths are life-like. When there are threats to their character’s life, the brain’s amygdala sounds the alarm that danger is ahead. This activates a series of survival responses, putting the brain in a state of high alert. Because the brain can’t tell the difference between a real, physical threat and a virtual one, the fight-or-flight response system kicks in, releasing a cascade of chemicals. The spike in adrenaline and cortisol triggers physiological changes—rapid breathing, increased pulse, and release of glucose—to prepare the body to react to danger. Focus narrows, and long-term executive function skills are displaced by heightened responses to immediate stimuli.

The stress state keeps the child from fully accessing the thinking part of their brain—the frontal cortex. After all, who needs to worry about eating dinner or doing homework when your “life” is on the line? The more they play, the more stressed they become. When the body’s stress system is always on, there is no relief from biochemical surges, and the vicious cycle continues. This chronic stress state wears out both the body and the mind, and the younger the brain, the more damaging the effects.

Stress in virtual life equals stress in real life

Overusing this fight-or-flight system through repeated interactive screen play results in this pathway becoming faster and stronger. This is how playing video games actually shapes the structure of the brain. Like a tire track in wet cement, over time, this stress pathway hardens into a rut that becomes the preferred route when other triggers occur in the real world.

Once the stress pathway becomes the path of least resistance, it is easily activated when real-life threats happen. Your child may overreact with a stress response for a trivial reason because that route has become their default mode when provoked; maybe they will throw something in anger or say something vicious. Remember, their impulse control skills are not yet honed, but their fight-or-flight response is. Parents usually don’t notice the problem until the stress signs are more pronounced. You may notice relationship conflicts, lying, a lower attention span for academic work, inability to focus, and more aggressive behavior in real-life play. Parents may get therapists involved if their child is acting out in school.

Doing anything when you are stressed is difficult. A teen under chronic stress—due to too much game time and not enough sleep—will not reach their academic potential. Screen stress can make it more difficult to plan ahead, solve problems, have empathy, or consider the consequences of an action.

Living in this chronic stress state hinders the ability to make and keep friends, because a chronically stressed child is no fun to be around. Parents may put their child on medication, or try to reason with their habitual gamer. Some parents think that their child will outgrow the problem, but the best solution for this chronic stress is to remove the source and allow the brain to reset.

The game becomes their new family

All that time invested in the virtual world makes it difficult for the child to walk away. They feel anxious when they try, which can cause even more stress.

When the child spends time building a sense of belonging in the virtual world, especially in multiplayer games, they become comfortable with shallow online relationships and the chronic stress state. Consequently, the real world can feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the cost of lost opportunities can become significant, possibly as great as the toll that screen-induced stress is taking on the mind and body. This chronic stress state keeps your child from exploring healthy interests and hobbies that are traditionally discovered during adolescence. This time in life is critical because the brain and body are going through crucial phases of development. But the biggest loss is their detachment from their relationship with their family.

What about moderation?

Moderation works for non-stressful screen time, like a family movie or schoolwork, but moderation does not work for toxic, stress-producing interactive screen activities.

When your child plays online games for 30 minutes a day—or does anything for 30 minutes a day—they are building a strong habit. Even brief daily gaming stress will stimulate and strengthen the stress pathway. Stress effects are cumulative and ingrained, meaning that your child’s brain doesn’t get a clean slate every morning to start over.

Games are designed to hook the player, so 30 minutes or even one hour a day will never be enough. Eventually, you will be arguing with your teenager when they won’t leave the game to come to dinner or go to soccer practice. You will wish you never let them start.

Drop the screen to relieve the stress

There is much debate over best practices for managing stressful screens. Therapists, other parents, or the neighbor next door may all offer opinions. However, when you consider the brain science of how chronic stress is changing our kids’ brains and making them suffer, the answer is simple: Remove the stimulant so the brain can reset and heal.

Is this easy? No. The best solutions are rarely easy or popular. But they work, and many families are finding that their kids are thriving without video games and social media. Playing video games is not a mandatory or healthy activity for kids.

The most successful resets occur when parents boldly eliminate toxic screen use—video games and social media—from their child’s digital diet, and focus on real-life activities that require movement and exposure to nature—a natural healer of stress. Parents can reinforce life skills, non-tech hobbies, and in-person relationships. When they do, they begin to get their child back.

These countercultural parents understand that in-person relationships are a natural safeguard against the dangers of toxic stress. When children play with others offline, they are healthier and become smarter. When a teen spends time with friends, they are calmer and less anxious. When more time is spent with their family, they enjoy a deeper sense of attachment and happiness. It is not a guarantee, but you are increasing the odds of having happier and healthier kids when toxic screens are removed.

Community calms us; isolation stresses us. Teach your kids how to keep a few good friends and enjoy building in-person relationships. This is the life your kids are craving. As your child grows in confidence and purpose, your whole family will be happier. This stress-free life will bring calm and peace to your home. When you join the ranks of the parents who choose to take the road less traveled and hit the pause button on the video game, you will finally get your lost child back and rediscover what you both were missing all along.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children escape the toxic consequences of overusing screens. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. Try a screen-free week and take the ScreenStrong Challenge. For seven days, you will dive into real life and your kids will get a chance to reset their brains and activities.