College of DuPage Professors of Psychology Azure Thill and Ada Wainwright want to reassure parents that a break in strict routine allows children an opportunity to engage in unstructured play and gives adolescents more time to self-reflect.
“There is so much focus in the news on how stay-at-home orders are impairing child development and parents need an uplift,” Thill said. “We need to look at the next school year from a different lens. One thing that we know based on decades of research is that unstructured play has a multitude of cognitive and social advantages.”
In the latest issue from the American Journal of Play, researchers found that children’s unscheduled playtime has been declining steadily over the past half-century. In addition, findings from a research study from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado offers support for a relationship between the time children spend in less-structured activities and the development of self-directed executive functions.
Thill said that many children no longer know how to handle boredom, they can lack creativity and they don’t have opportunities to practice leading and following amongst their peers.
“Parents tend to think that an abundance of activities will give their children an advantage as they move through their educational career,” she said. “Undoubtedly, there will be less direct learning and less large group socialization during the next school year. Instead of making parents feel like they need to worry and find ways to compensate, we need to help them understand what an important and unique opportunity this is.”
In Thill’s Educational Psychology class, the curriculum focuses on the importance of play and encourages future teachers to build play into their curriculum.
“I hope we see the return of small group unstructured play in the suburban neighborhoods,” she said. “Sometimes parents feel the need to function like a cruise director, laying out a list of pre-planned activities every morning. They need to be reminded that playing in the back yard is beneficial for kids too.”
For teenagers, the COVID-19 pandemic has canceled important events and limited many of their social activities. By encouraging independence and recognizing the importance of staying connected to friends, parents can help alleviate some of the tension and negative aspects they currently are experiencing, Wainwright said.
“Connecting with peers and developing autonomy are a crucial part of middle and late adolescent development,” she said. “A natural part of their social development is the pulling away from parents and the increasing importance of peers. We need to allow them to still connect with their friends in safe and responsible ways.”
Wainwright emphasized that while face-to-face interactions currently are limited, increased screen time can fill the void if used appropriately.
“Screen time is different depending on whether teenagers are talking to friends or family members versus watching news programming that increases anxiety or an unhealthy use of social media,” she said. “They depend on their mobile devices to connect with their friends. It’s more important for parents to help them use screen time in a positive way rather than simply limiting its use.”
Thill said more time at home is also a crucial time for teenagers to self-reflect and use this quiet time to their advantage. Research from the International Organization of Scientific Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences shows that when you study the reasons behind many psychosocial issues that arise among teenagers, one causality is that they did not understand their own authentic self.
“One of the major developmental tasks during the late adolescent years is to define, and refine, their identity,” Thill said. “Excessive amounts of homework, after-school activities and part-time employment significantly decreases the amount of time that they have to work on their identity development. This, in turn, contributes to high levels of stress and anxiety.”
While there are many positive aspects of this unprecedented time on children’s and adolescents’ development, Wainright said that it’s crucial that parents still pay attention to their child’s mental health.
“It’s important that parents allow their child to grieve their losses,” she said. “We should not trivialize their stressors or grief in the context of the larger issues playing out during this pandemic. Their grief over what they are experiencing—or not getting to experience—is real and parents need to give them time to process it.”