British Columbia

The lost art of play: how overscheduling makes children anxious

A Vancouver-based play therapist and family counsellor says many children today lack opportunities for free, unstructured play and that's affecting their mental health.

Just 2 minutes a day of free play makes a difference, says Vancouver play therapist

Children do not have enough unstructured time to play, says Vancouver play therapist, and this means they have no outlet for anxiety. (City of Vancouver)

Ask any busy working parent if they have enough free time to play and many might answer with a resounding no.

But it's not just adults who have no time for playtime. It's also kids these days, said one expert.

Johanna Simmons, a Vancouver-based play therapist and family counsellor, said children across the province lack opportunities for free, unstructured play and this is affecting their mental health.

"There has been a steep incline in the number of children with anxiety because children are scheduled, they are structured," Simmons said. "They have no down time."

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that one in seven young people in B.C. will experience a mental illness, and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue among children and teenagers.  

Unintentional harm

Children go from one after-school activity to the next, Simmons said, and face enormous pressure to do well in everything from school to extracurricular activities.

"They never have the chance to just be," she said. "In that free time, free play, children would play out their anxiety but now they've got no outlet for it."

Johanna Simmon's office is overflowing with toys, colouring books, stuffed animals and a sand tray; children use play and toys as a way to express their emotions in her therapy sessions. (Clare Hennig/CBC)

Part of the problem is a disconnect between what parents think is helping their child develop and the unintentional harm it is causing, Simmons added.

"Parents do see the value in play but they're still driven to put their kids in scheduled activities," she said. "The intentions are not bad but the children are missing out."

Children are more anxious and missing out on time to "just be" because of too many structured activities, says Johanna Simmons. (Godong/UIG/Getty)

Downtime is important

Sunny Webster, a daycare teacher whose son was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a child, knows the challenge of giving her son the right opportunities without overstretching him.

"As a parent, I thought karate would build his self-esteem but it was actually building on his anxiety," she said.

"He felt like he had to show that he has something to give back. I just want him to have fun but he didn't understand that."  

Webster said parents need to ask themselves if filling their children's free time with too many scheduled activities really is good for them.

"All the kids in my centre always have something to do at five o'clock. It's too much," she said.

"They think a young child should learn everything because it's better for them but downtime is important too. We always want the best for our children but what is the best?"

A father reads to his young daughter; experts say even a few minutes of focused interaction help build a stronger connection between parent and child. (Jackson Roy)

A few minutes of play keeps the doctor away

For Simmons, the play therapist, the answer to what is best for children is clear: just play more.

Unstructured play allows children to relax and momentarily take control of their environments, she said.

And playful engagement between parent and child is fundamental for building a strong relationship — even if it's only a couple of minutes a day.

"They used to say that what was important is the quality of the time that you spend with your children, but now research has shown that what is important is the quality and the quantity," Simmons said.

That means even the busiest of families can fit playtime into the day, she said.

"The good news in that is the quantity doesn't need to be more than two minutes but many two minute intervals during the day," she said. "And that's enough, that connection is enough."

To hear the full interview, click on the audio link below.

The lost art of play

The story is part of a series called The lost art of play that explores how play is changing and why this loss matters.

The five-part radio series, which airs on radio from July 17 to 21, is produced by Clare Hennig, this year's recipient of Langara College's Read-Mercer Fellowship.

Tune into On The Coast on 88.1 FM or 690 AM, weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., to hear the series.