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The Importance of Play As a Stress Management Technique

Life can be stressful, even for little ones.  Kids deal daily with stresses associate with schoolyard conflicts, grades, conflict or pressures in the home, and even illness.  Sometimes, kids need to use stress management techniques to help them cope.  Often, play can be an easily achieved stress reliever.  Let’s discuss this in a variety of contexts.

Johnny has had a spat with his best friend, Paul.  Paul is no longer speaking to Johnny, and Johnny is feeling badly about the situation.  If conflict resolution is unsuccessful, Johnny may need to let some time pass . . . to give Paul some time to simmer down.  Meanwhile, as Johnny feels stress while Paul decompresses, you can suggest that Johnny have another friend (Sam) over to keep him company.   Johnny and Sam can become thoroughly entranced during a game of Monopoly Junior.  They can lose themselves in acting out cops-and-robbers.  They can just have so much fun that Johnny can at least temporarily forget that he was otherwise feeling stressed by his conflict with Paul.

If Janie’s a driven, Type A child who is struggling in her Natural Science class, more studying may not always be the solution.  Sometimes, kids (and adults) can become so stressed about the information that they are expected to learn that their minds just simply start to shut out the absorption of additional information on the topic.  By allowing Janie the opportunity to step away from studying Natural Science one evening and having her engage in play, she may just decompress enough to come back to the stressor (the study materials) with a fresh perspective.  Play will have, in essence, pressed Janie’s restart button.

If you and your spouse have been fighting for several weeks and your kids are sensing the tension, your kids can better manage the stress they are feeling if they make time for play.  Chronic stress, with no periodic stress relief techniques employed, can dramatically alter the functioning of the stressed mind.  Logic and long-term thinking is impaired.  Depression can set in.  Anger can be experienced.  A variety of other negative effects can result from uninterrupted, chronic stress.  Thus, if your kids spend occasional nights with their cousins, they can make forts out of dining room chairs and blankets . . . and pretend for a while that their primary concern is the wild things that lurk just outside their fortress.  The thrill of camping (with all the comforts and snacks of home), complete with scary bear or wolf just beyond the fortress walls, can take your kids minds off of the stressors in their home environment.  When they return to your home the following morning, your kids will have refreshed stress tolerance because of the break they experienced the night before and they will have fostered a positive attitude that may buoy them when they deal with their chronic stressors .

Most significantly, kids can use play to cope with illness (their own or the illness of a loved one).  If Grandpa is sick, little Katie will likely feel stress and worry about Grandpa and whether she will be able to continue feeling a connection to Grandpa.  If Grandpa is still able to play hide-and-seek with Katie, Katie will have the stress-reliever that play is . . . and she will see that Grandpa’s illness will not necessarily change her relationship with him.  Play, then, can serve as a reassurance of normalcy in a child’s world

If Katie herself has an illness, especially if that illness is serious, play becomes all the more important as a stress management technique.  Critically ill, hospitalized children need play to help them cope with their day-to-day existence.  If a particular procedure is expected to cause acute pain, concurrent play can cause a distraction that may prompt Katie to focus on the play rather than the pain of the procedure.  So, if Katie’s older sister has a sock puppet that can be carried into the room during the procedure, the sock puppet can sing funny, lively songs to Katie and keep Katie’s mind off what is happening to her body.  Play can also help Katie come to terms with a procedure that is about to happen.  For example, a doctor or nurse can “perform” the procedure on Katie’s dolly.   Katie can then ask if the dolly hurts, when she can play again, if she is sad, etc.  In the process, this play is helping Katie express her questions and fears in a way that she may not have been comfortable expressing about herself directly.  Additionally, this form of play helps Katie bond with and establish trust in her medical team.  Also, play can be psychologically therapeutic as well as a distraction.  Let’s say Katie has been in the hospital for three weeks.  She’s been through every test known to medical science.  She hurts.  She’s frightened.  She misses her home, her friends, and her usual life routine.  She grieves that she is no longer just like every other little girl in her grade:  she now has a lifestyle of hospitalization and illness that differentiates her.  If her hospital’s pediatric unit has a play place, she can play with other kids who are going through what she is going through.  She will make new friends who don’t see her as “different”.  She can play like she used to play (or as close to that as possible) and pretend for a little while that her current life has some semblance of normalcy.  She can also use dollies to act out some of the fears she may be feeling that she can’t otherwise express.  For example, if her Barbie doll is sick, maybe Barbie cries when Katie herself is afraid to do so.  Finally, life in the hospital can be a scary, painful, stressful, and sad experience.  Living that experience 24/7 can be discouraging, to say the very least.  Many doctors hold the opinion that the attitudes of their patients can significantly shape the outcomes of the medical treatments rendered.  A patient who believes that he/she will die will be more likely to die than a patient with a similar diagnosis and prognosis but with a much more optimistic view of his/her future.   Therefore, play can increase life expectancy in critically ill children. 

Sustained or chronic exposure to a stressor can create significant anxiety in even the heartiest of people.  It is psychologically healthy to step away from the stressor every once in a while, seek out something pleasant, and enjoy that temporary reprieve and even some longer-lasting relief.  For many kids, play is that something pleasant. 

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