What Do Recess & Free Play Have to Do With Our Children's Mental Health?

Kids Need Play and Recess. Their Mental Health May Depend On It.

The above Education Week post, written by Michael J. Hynes, E.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY), is a call for action for communities to implement more recess and free (=self-directed) play to provide kids with the opportunity to learn to "take control of their lives," which mitigates against anxiety and depression. 

Free and unstructured play with other children and without adult supervision foster children's development decision-making. They learn to manage their emotions and figure out how to get along with others. Children develop competence, resilience and their internal sense of control.

As our children's free play and recess have been replaced with structured play and organized activities over the years, anxiety and depression rates among U.S. school children have risen sharply due to the lack of internal control. Hynes draws on research by Peter Gray, developmental psychologist at Boston College, who notes that the presence of anxiety and depression is closely related to people's sense of control (or lack thereof) they have over their lives.

DuPage County, Illinois. According to the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) data, 26% of 8th graders, 29% of 10th graders and 31% of 12th graders in DuPage County have "[felt] so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities" in the past 12 monthsAsked if they had  considered "seriously attempting suicide" in the previous 12 months, 15% of both 10th and 12th graders responded that they had.

Call to Action. Hynes believes that "there is one noteworthy reason that has contributed to this mental health crisis like no other, recess and play are on the endangered species list in our public schools."  He has implemented 40 minutes of recess and 40  minutes of lunch in all elementary schools in his school district and challenges school leaders to "focus on the benefits children receive outside of the classroom and on the playground. Indoor/outdoor free play and recess benefits the development of physical, emotional, academic and social skills."




Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash





Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously!

On Balance Parenting and Artisan Clinical Associates  present a new parenting series:

Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously!

We invite parents & caregivers to join us in monthly conversations about how to nurture and launch competent & resilient kids who live whole-hearted lives. 

We will read & excerpt from The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. The book is available at Anderson's Bookstore in Naperville.

Series will start Tuesday, September 18, 7:00-8:30 PM and continue on every third Tuesday of the following months at the ALIVE Center (500 W. 5th Ave., Naperville, Il)

All are welcome! Participation is free and TICKETS ARE REQUIRED

Questions? Please email dagmar@onbalanceparenting.org

Photo Credit: Alex Block on Unsplash

Unsupervised Play & Autonomy Reduce Kids' Anxiety

NPR ED: Empowering Kids in an Anxious World

Most kids no longer engage in unsupervised play without screens or parents watching over them at all times. It prevents kids from developing important life skills: resolving disputes, planning time, managing games. Engagement in manageable risks promotes autonomy, which "feeds self-esteem and mental health."  

Excellent points on the benefits of unsupervised play and providing kids' with autonomy in this review of two new books by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Good News About Bad Behavior and William Stixrud, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control over Their Lives.

Bottom line: Unsupervised play, taking manageable risks and providing kids with control over their lives promote the development of life skills and mental health. 

Read entire NPR ED review here.



The Vital Role of Social Connection in our Lives

Work and the Loneliness Epidemic

The above article, written by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in the Harvard Business Review, focuses on loneliness, the lack of social connection, as a "growing health epidemic."

Dr. Murthy reports that over 40 percent of Americans report feeling lonely, with research indicating that the real numbers may be even higher. People from all socioeconomic groups and ages suffer from loneliness, CEOs and students alike.

Research shows that loneliness is as toxic to our health and reduces lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. "[Loneliness] is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety." Dr. Murthy calls the human and economic cost of loneliness "profound."

We can be all part of strengthening social connections. Grab a cup of coffee with a friend. Stop by a coworker's cubicle and ask them about their weekend. Pick up the phone and call a friend or relative to simply say "hi."

Leave the cell phone behind. Listen attentively. Feel joy and the feeling of connection rise inside of you.


Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Letting our Kids Practice Planning, Decision-making

Allowing our kids to practice planning, decision-making and problem-solving sounds much easier than it is. For sure! It requires us parents to let go of our well-meaning intentions to help our kids and provide space for our kids to do the task themselves. It is hard to let go especially in the busy lives we lead. It can be maddening to watch and wait while our child ties her shoelaces or realize that our freshman left his soccer cleats at home, again.

In other words, "being intentionally lazy," as the author of this Washington Post article recommends is not lazy at all. Sitting back and allowing space and time for our kids to sort things out for themselves, requires lots of energy and patience on the part of us parents and caregivers. And my goodness, does it ever require deep breathing! By doing so though, we provide our kids with the opportunity to practice their executive functioning: goal-setting and follow-though, decision-making, regulation of emotions and problem-solving. We help them acquire the skills they need to be successful in life.

The Compelling Case for Being an "Intentionally Lazy' Parent


Reviving Vocational Education Programs

For a long time now, many students have been told by their parents and high school counselors that in order to get a 'good job,'  they must attend college. Such pressure often results in anxiety or depression. Technical and vocational career options are rarely discussed and seem to be reserved for students who are "below average."

Let's expand the career options for our students and talk about vocational and technical education programs. Many occupations do not require college. 

David McGrath is emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and makes a compelling argument for the benefit of vocational education programs not only for our students but our economy, which is in need of filling vocational jobs.

Let's quit brainwashing kids that it is a college degree or nothing



Strive for Perfection is Making Our Kids Sick. Time for Reform.

Is the Drive for Success Making our Children Sick?

This is an excellent article by Vicki Abeles, filmmaker and author of  Beyond Measure.

We have a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress, anxiety and depression. Students' average days consist of 7 hours of school, plus sports, clubs, music activities followed by hours of homework. Weekends are filled with homework projects, test preparations, tournaments and other competitions. No down-time and not enough sleep. Kids in elementary school complain about migraine headaches and ulcers. "Many pediatricians see a clear connection to performance pressure."

There are schools all around the country that are making small but important structural changes to ease pressure and improve our children's health. Reforms include: start times, block schedules, homework limits, homework-free weekends & holidays, re-thinking assessments to show growth beyond conventional tests as well as re-thinking the number of clubs, sports, activities our students are involved in. 

Research shows that when students are less anxious and depressed their academic achievement goes up.  Let's choose the health of our children. The time for reform is now.


Lack of Sleep = Increase of Sadness, Hopelessness

"Make sure your kids eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.

"This recipe seems like a no-brainer, but most teenagers are not taking care of themselves in these simple ways. Damour calls sleep the “silver bullet.” Adolescents are supposed to get nine hours of sleep a night. “Any amount under that,” she says, “and they’re going be more stressed, more reactive, and sadder.” Indeed, a new study shows that teenagers who lack adequate sleep are at greater risk of depression and suicide. The study found that “each hour of sleep lost was associated with a 38 percent increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness among teens."

The Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain

(This post was originally published on LinkedIN on February 15,2018.)

  "What happens when the brain is stressed — not for a few seconds, but year after year? Stress hormones end up swamping our bodies for days, weeks, months. Research shows that cortisol, specifically, chews up the brain if it loiters there long-term.  When lab rats in Israel, Germany, USA, China, and Italy were given daily injections of rat cortisol for several weeks, it killed brain cells in their hippocampus region, leaving them depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors (e.g. stuck in the same old “rat race).”

Parents and school leaders: We are making our kids sick. It is time for structural adaptive positive strategies. For the health and well-being of our kids and our communities. 

 #CrisisofConnection #MentalHealthCrisis  #AddictionCrisis   #NewHumanParadigm via @Khiree Smith

Naperville 'State of the Kids' Town Hall: Examine Our Environment, Achievement Culture


(This post was originally published on LinkedIN on July 12, 2017.)

Naperville City Councilwoman Rebecca Boyd-Obarski’s call for a town-hall meeting to assess the “State of Kids” in our community is a timely one.

Alongside a review of student alcohol and drug use data, we need to take a look at the state of our youths’ mental health and examine how cultural messages and expectations impact our children’s well-being.

Our culture’s narrow focus on academic achievement–grades, test scores, rote learning–and ambitious resume-building has adversely affected many of our students’ health. Calendar slots for time spent with family, hanging out with friends or simply reading a book for pleasure, are rare to non-existent. To cope with their over-scheduled lives, students often resort to unhealthy coping strategies or even self-harm. Following a classmate’s recent death by suicide, Tessa Newman, a Naperville North High School student posted an online petitionasking that the school’s pressure culture change. Tessa’s experience matches that of many of her peers living in affluent and high-achieving communities across the country.

Academic stress impacts kids’ lives nationwide:

  • "73 percent of [high school] students cite academic stress as their number one reason to take drugs, yet only 7 percent of parents think their teens might use drugs to deal with stress.“
  • "36 percent of 9-13-year-olds said that they were more stressed by academics than any other stressor—even bullying or family problems.”
  • “Youth were also 3 times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement: ‘My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.’”

In DuPage County, 17 percent of 10th grade and 27 percent of 12th grade students reported that they had “use[d] alcohol or drugs to relax, feel better about [themselves] or fit in.” (Illinois Youth Survey, 2014)

For 'State of the Kids' we need to get as many stakeholders involved as possible: students, parents, school administrators, educators, health, prevention and social service providers, the business community. Let’s talk about parenting strategies that best serve our youth to become joyful, resilient and caring people. Let’s think about ideas to promote engaged learning and tweak school schedules. Let’s hear from our business community's thoughts about what young people need to be successful in the workforce. And finally, and most importantly, let us please listen to our kids.

Perhaps we could start thinking about these issues by asking, What does it mean to be successful ?

Prevention starts with our conversation. Let’s be open and honest. Thoughtful and courageous.