18 Nov

As a psychology graduate, a teacher, a playworker and hypnotherapist, I have been concerned about the growing number of children with mental health issues. I welcome the drive to make mental health education compulsory in schools, not only to support children experiencing mental ill health, but also in helping children to recognise mental ill health in others. I am hopeful that this will contribute to reducing the stigma of mental health in future generations.

As a mindfulness practitioner, I have also been interested in the drive to bring mindfulness into schools, and I have been thinking about how that might work. I got excited at the prospect of teaching children a life-long skill that will help them with their own mental health and well-being. I began to wonder about the best medium for teaching mindfulness to children, and this led me to thinking about play and the concept of ‘mindful play’. It sounds good, right? If children are playing, they are learning. If we can bring mindfulness into their play, then what a better way for them to learn this great skill.

But almost as soon as I had that thought, I realised that there is a HUGE flaw in this thinking. The first and most important thing that I keep coming back to is that play is in essence mindfulness. It is the first experience of mindfulness that we have. When children play, they are absorbed in that activity and they are very much in the present moment. I’m talking about their own self-directed play, not pre-planned, organised play; I think this is where we as professionals and parents get confused. In adult-led and organised play, when we see children distracted and not engaged, there is an assumption that they need something else; better equipment, better activities, support to develop their attention span. But actually, giving children freedom to play as they choose is much more beneficial to them!  Madsen et. al. (2011) found that increasing opportunities for self-directed play during school break times, improved concentration and behaviour during lesson times.  Furthermore, it is not just their education that improves, research also shows that play increases children’s quality of life (Foley, 2008; Gleave & Cole-Hamilton, 2012). However, in the UK, play spaces have been closed due to funding cuts, risk has become so synonymous with play that we have restricted what, where and how children play, even within the home. This has led to a reduction in physical activity, which has increased health conditions such as obesity. Opportunities to interact with others, problem-solve and deal with emotions have been reduced, and the number of children experiencing anxiety is on the rise (Gleave & Cole-Hamilton, 2012; Holly & Pina, 2014).

Children have lost a sense of freedom and choice as we schedule them up with activities and stifle their creativity. How can they be mindful when we are telling them what to play, where to play and how to play? Let them absorb themselves in their own activity and give them space to play as they wish, for it is here that they will be mindful. Let them experience risk, have quarrels and give them the space to work out how to resolve it. Let’s stop imposing our views of their play on them, let them figure it out for themselves. Instead of using play to teach mindfulness or some other strategy, let’s increase play times in schools – free play! Let’s bring back fun, just for the sake of fun!

So instead of using play as a tool to teach children about mindfulness, let’s allow them to be more mindful by giving them more play!  

Foley, P (2008) ‘Introduction’, in Collins, J and Foley, P (eds) Promoting Children’s Wellbeing: Policy and Practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Gleave, J., Cole-Hamilton, I., (2012) ‘A world without play: A literature review’ available at: http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/371031/a-world-without-play-literature-review-2012.pdf viewed 18/11/2018

Holly, L.E., & Pina, A., (2014) 'Variations in the Influence of Parental Socialization of Anxiety among Clinic Referred Children' Child Psychiatry & Human Development, Vol. 46 (3), pp 474–484

Madsen, K A., Hicks, K and Thompson, H (2011) ‘Physical activity and positive youth development: Impact of a school-based program’, Journal of School Health, Vol. 81 (8), pp.462–470

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