> Bless Their Hearts Mom: Book Excerpt: The Danish Way of Encouraging Play
Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book Excerpt: The Danish Way of Encouraging Play

DisclosureAdapted with permission from THE DANISH WAY OF PARENTING: What the Happiest People in the World Know A bout Raising Confident, Capable Kids by Jessica Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl.© 2014, 2016 by Jessica Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Did you read our review of this new book?

I wanted to share an excerpt with you, so you might rethink entering to win the review copy!

The Danish Way of Parenting cover

Have you noticed that there is an unspoken or even spoken pressure to organize activities for your kids? Whether it’s swimming, ballet, T-ball, or soccer, somehow you just don’t feel like you are doing your job if you don’t have your kids signed up for at three or four things a week. How many times do you hear parents saying that their Saturday is taken up with driving their children to various sports, lessons or activities?

In contrast, when was the last time you heard someone say, “On Saturday, my daughter is going to play”?

And by “play,” we don’t mean play the violin or play a sport or even go on a play date where adults have organized activities. We mean “play” in which they are left to their own devices, with a friend or alone, to play exactly as they see fit, for as long as they want. And even if parents do allow this free play to take place, there is often a nagging feeling of guilt about admitting it. Because, ultimately, we feel we are being better parents by teaching them something, having them involved in a sport or giving their little brains some input. Play often seems like a waste of valuable learning time. But is it?

In America in the last 50 years, the number of hours that a child was allowed to play has decreased dramatically. Aside from the television and technology, there is also parents’ fear of kids getting hurt, coupled with a desire to “develop” them, which has taken over much of the time they once had to play.

As parents, we feel comforted when our children are making visible signs of progress in something. e like watching them play soccer while others cheer them on or going to their ballet or piano recital. We feel proud to say that Billy won a medal or a trophy or learned a new song or can recite the alphabet in Spanish. It makes us feel like we are good parents. We do it with the best intentions because by giving them more instruction and structured activities, we are giving them training to become more successful, thriving adults. Or are we?

It’s no secret that the number of anxiety disorders, depression and attention disorders have skyrocketed in America. Is it possible that we are making our kids anxious without realizing it by not allowing them to play more?

Are we over-programming our kids’ lives?

Many parents strive to start their children at school early or jump a grade. They learn to read and do math earlier and earlier and we are proud because they are “smart” and being smart or athletic are highly valued characteristics in American culture. We may go to great lengths with tutors and educational toys and programs to try to get them there. Success is success and these are tangible, 
visible, measurable signs. Free play, for all intents and purposes, seems fun but what is it really teaching them?

What if we told you that free play teaches children to be less anxious? It teaches them resilience. 

And resilience has been proven to be one of the biggest factors in predicting success as an adult. The ability to “bounce back,” regulate emotions, and cope with stress is a key factor in a healthy, functioning adult. We now know that resilience is great for preventing anxiety and depression and it’s something the Danes have been instilling in their children for years. And one of the ways they have done it is by placing a lot of importance on play.

In Denmark, dating back to 1871, husband and wife Niels and Erna Juel Hansen came up with the first pedagogy based on educational theory, which incorporated play. They discovered that free play was crucial for a child’s development. In fact, for many years, Danish children weren’t even allowed to start school before they were seven. They didn’t want them to engage in education because they felt that children should first and foremost be children and play. Even now, children up until the age of ten finish regular school at 2pm and then go to what is called “free-time school” (skolefritidsordning) for the rest of the day, where they are mainly encouraged to play. Amazing, but true!

In Denmark, there isn’t a sole focus on education or sports, but rather on the whole child. Parents and teachers focus on things like socialization, autonomy, cohesion, democracy, and self-esteem. They want their children to learn resilience and develop a strong internal compass to guide them through life. They know their children will be well educated and learn many skills. But true happiness isn’t coming only from a good education. A child who learns to cope with stress, makes friends, and yet is realistic about the world has a very different set of life skills than being a math genius, for example. And by life skills, the Danes are talking about all aspects of life. Not only career life. For what is a math genius without the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs? All the Danish parents we spoke to said that excessive focus on pressuring young children seemed very strange to them.

As they see it, if children are always performing in order to obtain something—good grades, awards or praise from teachers or parents—then they don’t get to develop their inner drive. They believe that children fundamentally need space and trust to allow them to master things by themselves, to make and solve their own problems. This creates genuine self-esteem and self-reliance because it comes from the child’s own internal cheerleader, not someone else. 

But how can play help?

Scientists have been studying play in animals for years, trying to understand its evolutionary purpose. And one thing they are finding is that play is crucial for learning how to cope with stress. In studies 
done on domestic rats and rhesus monkeys, scientists found that when they were deprived of playmates during a critical stage of their development, these animals became “stressed out” as adults. They would overreact to challenging situations, unable to cope well in social settings. They would either react with excessive fear, sometimes running shaking into a corner, or with exaggerated aggression, lashing out with rage. The lack of play was definitely the culprit, because when the animals were allowed a playmate for even an hour a day, they developed more normally and coped better as adults.

Fight or flight behaviors, normally experienced in play, activate the same neurochemical pathways in the brain as stress does. Think about when you see dogs running around chasing each other for fun. Many animals engage in this kind of play, putting each other and put each other into the subordinate or attacker position in a play fight, creating a kind of stress. We know that exposing the brains of baby animals to stress changes them in a way that makes them less responsive to stress over time, meaning that the more they play the better their brains become at regulating stress as they grow. Their ability to cope constantly improves through playing and they are able to deal with more and more difficult situations. Resilience isn’t cultivated by avoiding stress, you see, but learning how to tame and master it.

Are we taking away the ability to regulate stress from our kids by not allowing them to play enough?

Looking at the number of anxiety disorders and depression in our society, one wonders if something is amiss. Since one of the biggest reported fears of someone with an anxiety disorder is “the fear of losing control of their emotions,” we can’t help but ask: if we stand back and let our children play more, will they be more resilient and happier adults? We think the answer is yes.

About the Authors:

Jessica Alexander is an American columnist and mom living in Europe, with her Danish husband and kids.

Iben Dissing Sandahl is a licensed psychotherapist and family counselor working for many years in her private practice outside Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Learn more about both at: thedanishway.com.

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