It’s Friday night and everyone is looking to have some fun. Someone suggest we watch a movie. Someone suggests we go on a walk. Then I have a crazy idea. How about we play Hide-and Seek? Everyone loves the idea, so we turn out all the lights in the house, dress in the darkest clothes we can find and start the game.
Even though I’m a big guy, I wedge myself into the top shelf of the hall linens closet because that is an epic hiding spot. As I’m perched up there with my knees crowding my nose, I realize I’m short of breath and my heart is pounding. I recognize it as the same things I experience when I feel anxiety setting in. I try to exercise my mental fortitude and slow my breathing and tell myself even though I’m crammed into a small space and may be a little claustrophobic, I’m really ok, and if I can be quiet enough I might win the game.
Then it all hit me! Childhood games are the natural way kids develop coping skills for anxiety and depression throughout life!!! I looked into it a bit and found there is some fascinating research done about kids play and the direct effects on anxiety and depression done by Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College.
He talks about the benefits of “Free-Play” vs. organized activity. Gray defines “free play” as games a child chooses themselves and which is self-directed and an end in itself. Play, just to play. He shows how freely-chosen play is a testing ground for life and an important part of emotional development. Gray notes that: “…in school, children work for grades and praise and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies…. In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity.”
So how about we turn off our screens this weekend and here’s 5 Fun Ways to Overcome Anxiety in Kids!
I know this game is for babies, but it is the beginning of anti-anxiety training for children. It teaches them Object Permanence, or that even though you can’t see something for a moment, it still exists. This is the beginning of learning how to cope with separation anxiety and other feelings of being alone. It reassures them that even though you’re apart for a short while, the joy of reunion is worth the separation. Here’s another great article about it.
2. Hide And Seek
Holy Cow, talk about great anti-anxiety training. I saw the growth happening right before my eyes with 5 year old Eva. At first she was afraid of the dark and wanted to hide with a buddy. We tried that, but of course it made us easier to find, so she realized she was better off hiding on her own. Then she would intentionally make noises to be found seeking reassurance that we would come for her. Then she realized she wanted to win, so she mustered some emotional fortitude to overcome her anxieties about the dark and being alone, and she was so proud of herself when she wasn’t the first one found. She found her current limits, some places were too scary to hide in, but she was really good at the game especially because her little body could fit in some places I couldn’t even consider hiding. SO FUN!! Here’s another article about Hide and Seek on psychologytoday.com
3. Duck, Duck Goose
This is an age old classic where each time the chooser goes around the circle the child anticipates if they are going to have to jump up and run to catch the chooser. The anxious feelings of not knowing if you’re going to be picked and then having to start a physical response to chase are so helpful for kids to learn patience, quick responsiveness, how to process feelings of excitement, and feelings of disappointment. There’s no reward or trophy for winning, they need it simply to learn coping mechanisms and self control.
Talk about anxiety! Isn’t this game kind of the childhood version of a nightmare for many adults, being chased down and caught by an attacker? Kids learn the limits of their physical abilities in response to someone chasing them. In a non-threatening game format it increases their self-awareness and determination to beat imminent challenges coming their way. After being tagged they turn around and chase the others. They learn that even though everyone else may want to run from them, they can increase their effort and achieve their goals and succeed in society. AMAZING life skills, right?
5. Red Rover
Banding together, holding tight to not allow anyone or anything break you, that sounds exactly like anti-anxiety training. Think about what emotions you have to feel in order to run full steam into an opposing force, confident that you will break through and be successful. Sometimes you don’t break through and succeed, but as a result of the game, you’re wrapped up in the arms of friends laughing and giggling and reassured that people around you love you and want you to join their group. Such a great way to teach resilience at such a young age.
These games aren’t just for little kids.
They help teenagers and even young adults enjoy connectedness and learn to overcome their anxieties, both social and internal. It’s not like if you didn’t play these games as a kid that you’ll never be able to learn the healthy anti-anxiety lessons they teach. We just need to put away the screens and choose these age old proven healthy “free-play” activities. They will help us better connect socially and learn to deal with the pressures of life in a non-threatening format. Here’s a great video from the professionals from Life Launch Centers about social struggles, resilience and some additional things they teach youth in their group counseling program.