Are you tired of trying to keep your child on a schedule? The importance of play.

May 20, 2020

As pediatricians, we frequently receive updates regarding topics of interest that the Academy of Pediatrics finds important for us to be aware of. Recently, a new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics caught my attention. They are recommending that doctors write a “PRESCRIPTION FOR PLAY!”.

Yes, a prescription to play. It sounds so simple. Yet, from 1981 to 1997, children’s playtime decreased by 25 %. Children ages 3 to 11 have lost 12  hours per week of free time due to academic pressures and organized after-school activities. The pressures felt from parents to keep up with the daily-changing electronic games and digital devices is real.

Kids whose parents cannot afford the expensive digital toys may feel left out and kids whose parents CAN afford them, think that allowing their kids unlimited access to these objects is healthy and promotes learning. New games and apps come in the guise of claiming to help your child learn his or her ABC’s, math skills and or other didactic academic skills. Yet, studies show that the truth is actually that the opposite of this is true.

Children’s creativity and play is actually improved with inexpensive objects that are found in any household…boxes, spoons, balls, puzzles, crayons, boxes, pots and pans, etc.

The importance of play, it seems, has been lost. Sometimes play is viewed as frivolous or a waste of time. Parents are spending a small fortune and endless hours in a child’s life in organized sports and/or activities. The competition in the academic world is real. Parent’s want their children to be the best and this sometimes comes with the loss of free play.

Yet the studies show that play actually leads to changes in the brain in the molecular, cellular and behavioral levels. It is believed that play can have lasting changes in the brain that help to improve execute functioning and help in processing social interaction.

Executive functioning is the process of learning rather that the actual content.  It has been shown to help children with improved self-regulation and self-control, better problem solving skills, filtering of distracting details, and mental flexibility. In fact, countries that offer more free play see greater academic success among children as they mature.

It has even been shown that children have lower levels of cortisol (which indicate lower stress levels) when involved in active play. This is especially important for children dealing with significant toxic stress and adversity in their daily lives, but is also important for decreasing anxiety as well. In fact, countries that offer more free play see greater academic success among children as they mature.

So what can we do? What can we as parents do to help change this? The recommendations are clear.

  • Encourage free play in your day to day life with your children. You do not necessarily need extra time to play. Incorporate play in your day to day life. Engage your children in helping at home with chores, which can in turn result in role playing or fun games.
  • Let your child lead with their creativity. If your child gets a new toy resist the temptation to show them how to use it. Let them try to figure it our for themselves. They may actually teach you something you had not even thought about!
  • Make free play a priority instead of viewing it as a waste of time. Relax and enjoy in watching your child run around yelling “I am a pirate” or “let’s play school”

Free play, without constant supervision, helps children come together. It often brings children from diverse backgrounds together as they make up rules to a game, role-play and learn empathy. Through play,  children learn what its like to lose and  they are encouraged to come up with strategies to improve their outcomes in up-coming challenges. These interaction help to evolve independent thinking and creativity.

Some of my happiest moments as a mom, was watching my kids build a fort and create their own stories and/or games. It makes me smile just to think about it.

It is up to us as parents to bring free play back into the lives of our children. Our world is changing and our children need the skills necessary to compete in the 21st Century world. We need them to be creative, innovative and problem-solvers. These are the very skills that free-play encourages through the development of executive functioning.
Stop and look around you. Take a long hard look at your child’s life and what his/her daily activities involve. Perhaps you have been feeling over scheduled and stressed with parenting and “keeping up with the jonses”.

Play with your kids. Act silly sometimes and laugh. Enjoy games you played as a child and help your child discover their interpretation of the world around them, free from  your interpretation. The truth is that free play will not only help your child but you as well.

Below are age-specific recommendations :

  1. 2-3 months-  Respond to your infants emergence of a social smile by smiling in response. It helps an infant learn the effects of their behaviors. (making a parent smile when they smile).
  2. 4-6 months- Encourage games of peek-a-boo, laughing, and encourage your infant to discover new objects on their own. Instead of teaching an infant how to use a toy, watch them discover it!
  3. 9 months- At nine months is when babies begin to develop separation anxiety and stranger anxiety. It is a time when infants begin to learn self-regulation as they begin to use their parents for social refrencing. Your baby is looking at you for guidance. Make sure your facial expressions are encouraging instead of fearful as your baby begins exploring the world.
  4. 12 months- At this age, infants really begin to lay the foundation of the development of social skills/interactions. They love the feeling of accomplishment and true joy as they take their first steps or say a new word. Encourage your child taking those baby steps in self-discovery. Again, remember that your facial expression is what your baby is looking for.
  5. 2 year olds- Everyone talks about the “terrible twos”. I believe that the reason this is a belief is that this is a difficult time for a toddler. It is a time of emerging independence and they undertand usually a lot more than they are able to communicate. This leads to frustration and tantrums. Try to provide your child with some independence while staying close by providing words of encouragement when they fail or fall. Resist the temptation to scoop them up when they fall. Watch to see what they do and how they begin to problem solve.
  6. 3 year olds- By 3 years of age, most children have begun to communicate more effectively and can understand  cause and effect. This is when it is critically important to model behavior for your child. Help your child deal with emotionally challenging situations. Guide and lead but do not be so quick to offer solutions. Let them come up with their own ways and help them learn why some solutions may be better than others. Encourage drawing, coloring and creating. Sit back and discuss how wonderful that their elephant is purple and flies, just because… Encourage creativity and take them to the park, beach or outside with no agenda.
  7. 4-6 year olds- By 4-6 years of age, most children have started some form of formal teaching in an academic setting. If possible, try to select programs that prioritize free play and recess in these early years. If your income is limiting take the time when possible to find local parks or community centers where your child can simply just play…
  8. 7-9 year olds- By 7-9 years of age, many parents are focusing their child’s talents on one sport or another form of specific after-school activity. Many children this age spend sometimes 10-12 hours a week practicing and developing a skill. The pressures to be the best are beginning to become real and many parents with lower means begin to feel that their children are not able to keep up with their more “economically-advantaged” peers. The increase in the use of electronic devices increases significantly in this age group. Yet, studies show that active play for 1 hour per day, allowed kids in this age group to think more creatively and multi-task. These kids were also found to improved social-emotional skills that later are found to correlate with improved academic and economic success. Third grade prosocial behaviors correlated with eighth grade reading and math better than with third grade math and reading levels. So, set up play dates at the park. Set up no-electronic times in your child’s schedule and let them be “bored”. Boredom sparks creativity and taps into their imagination. Do not over-schedule them.
  9. 10 and beyond-  After the age of 10, most kids are playing electronic games and or watching more TV and videos than interacting in free play. Make a point to go outside (with no electronics) whenever possible. Find activities in your community that encourage free play. Play decreases stress, fatigue, injury and depression. In fact, adult success in later life can be related to the experience of childhood play that cultivated creativity, problem solving, teamwork, flexibility and innovations.
  10. Parents-  The benefits of play for parents are too many to  list. If your child asks you to play, do it. Enjoy the joy in your child’s face when he/she discovers the world. Go back to childhood, when life was simple, days were long and troubles were few. Create a bond with your child that will only strengthen with time, and have fun doing it!

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.

How to help kids find their voice

May 13, 2020

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”-Walt Disney

Perhaps you have been there. You are in a board meeting or a classroom and an idea pops into your head. Your thoughts are elaborate. You are imagining something so amazing it has your head spinning. Suddenly you stop, look around, realize that you are in a room full of people and your thoughts begin to go in a different direction. “What would they think of me?” “What would they say?” “They will think it’s dumb” “They will laugh at me.” Just like that, your thoughts stop and you again focus on the discussion in the room. You listen and participate in the topic of the day and are careful to chose your words carefully and keep your seemingly crazy ideas to yourself…

It is situations like this that are all too familiar. I am certain your child has felt it too. Perhaps in school, in a meeting, collaborating with friends, or maybe even at home. Yet, we are surrounded by amazing inventions and technology that if you really stop to think about it, I’m sure at some point seemed absurd. An airplane, a telephone,  a car, a computer, a cruise ship, a smart phone, face time…the list is endless. Stop and think about that.

Imagine when the inventors of these amazing things we take for granted first said they had an idea. I imagine the laughter in the room, the finger pointing, the discouraging words and the whispers. Yet, for some reason these inventors continued to look ahead and imagined the impossible with perseverance. We know many of these inventions are the result of persistent failures. It makes me wonder what instills that drive in someone to continue to work on the impossible? What determines the person that will succeed?

I invite you to ask these same questions of yourself and your children. Push yourself in your next meeting to say what you are truly thinking about. Express your ideas and see where they go. Sit down with your children and role play. Give them a scenario like the one I described and encourage them to speak their mind. Embolden them to raise their hand. Remind them that usually those that ridicule or laugh are too afraid to speak up. The laughter is often a result of nervousness, personal doubt and “fitting in”.

It is exciting to imagine the impossible. It is intriguing to see where your child will go with his/her ideas. As parents, we need to be reminded that our dreams may not be those of our children. Listen to what your children are interested in or not interested in! Imagine the possibilities…they are endless.

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.

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What to do when your child is having trouble making friends. Some helpful tips

July 27, 2019

As a parent it is hard sometimes to hold back when you think your child is being treated unfairly. It’s your job right? to protect your child always…. The problem is that by stepping in for every little conflict your child faces you are sending the message to them that they are weak and can not stand up for themselves.

It doesn’t matter if its the fact that someone cut them in line in the playground or that a child said something mean to them or did not treat them “fairly”. The moment your child runs to tell you what happened your inner “Momma Bear” goes into fight mode. Who does this child think he is to talk to my baby like that? Who does he think he is not to share with MY child? I’m going to run right over there and set things straight!…Sound familiar?
I hear this over and over in the office.

Complaints from parents about how their child is having trouble making friends, crying easily in the classroom when things do not go their way and becoming more and more of an introvert. In fact, the other day a child (7 years old) told me that there was a “really mean” girl in camp that was bothering her and her mom quickly reported how she had to take her out of camp because of this “mean girl”.  Yes, this 7 year old girl could no longer enjoy the fun she was having in camp with the other girls she liked because of this one mean girl!

Running away from conflict or having you come in to scoop them up to safety is not doing your child any good. If you stop to think about it, you are essentially telling your child that when a mean person comes around, unfortunately you can’t participate in that activity anymore even if you are enjoying it. This is how we give all of our power away.

Instead, empower your kids to have a voice and help them come up with solutions on how to best manage this situation in the future. Consider these moments as “teaching moments” and help your child navigate through them when they are young so they have the tools they need when they are older.

Here are some ways that you can help your child:

  • Help them understand that you are not in control of other people’s actions. Even if sometimes we wish we could, we simply can not. The only person you are in control of is yourself and how you chose to react.
  • Help them shift the focus away from what they are thinking to what others could be feeling/thinking. Usually people that are nasty or mean are unhappy people. Think about it, if you are truly happy inside you would never be so mean or horrible to others.  This changes your child’s thinking about the person that they are focused on.
  • Encourage your child to initiate conversations. Encourage them to seek out other kids in the class, playground or camp that are perhaps playing alone, or nice and have them try to start conversations with them. Teach them to ask other kids questions. People love to talk about themselves and kids are no exception! Have your child come home to tell you something new they learned about a couple of kids in their class. It’s funny because until you really start conversations with others you may not know how much you actually have in common! Make this a goal!
  • Teach them to act how they want to feel. It’s not being fake, it is helping to shift your thoughts into the way you want to feel, which then affects how you act and show up. If they want to have friends and be friendly then work on imagining what a friendly person would do and how they act. Do they come into a room and sit in a corner alone? Do they spend more time looking down at the floor than at others? No! Instead of waiting for others to approach you, try smiling a little more and maybe starting a conversation with a new student every week.
  • Encourage them to try to be helpful. If a child is working on a project and is looking for markers and your child has some, encourage them to offer their markers. These gestures of kindness are usually welcomed and in turn this can be the beginning of a real friendship.

In the end we want our kids to have meaningful relationships with others. This has been proven time and time again to be one of the keys to living a happy and fulfilled life. Learning how to deal with conflict and difficult situations will serve them well in the future when they have to deal with this as young adults and essentially forever!

Give your child the gift of confidence and help them develop the skill of making friends. For some it’s easier than for others but it is never impossible!

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D. 

Teaching self worth: It is determined by YOU

December 4, 2018

The only person that can decide your self worth is YOU. It begins in infancy. You are born into a family and if you are lucky you are surrounded by people that love you and dote over you. Your family gives you praise, loves you unconditionally and encourages you to go out into the world as you walk into your first pre-k classroom.

Parents worry that the world will hurt you or change you but they do it anyway. They know that with love comes risk and that the true job of a parent is to raise a child to be independent and to find a life that is meaningful to them. It is difficult sometimes since you never know the teacher your child will meet or the classmates they will encounter and it is scary.

There will be days that your child comes home crying because something wasn’t fair or someone said something that hurt their feelings. When these moments arise (and they will) remember that this is your opportunity to teach your child the greatest lesson of all. The importance of self-worth.

The truth is you can not change others behaviors. You cannot make people do or say what you want them to say. You can not control what they think of you. You only have control over your response to the situation and what you believe about yourself. The sooner you teach this to your kids the happier they will be. Do not give this power to someone else.

Ask your kids what they believe about themselves and help them to find examples to back up their beliefs. Remind them of their behaviors and moments where they were kind to others and perhaps helped a friend. It seems that we are very good at remembering when we failed someone but not so good at recalling when we got it just right. It is important to forgive yourself when you make a mistake and understand that we all do.

Under the same circumstances, people have the option to decide how they want to respond and how they would like to show up in the world. Help your child to see those options. Imagine if you lived your life understanding that there are an infinite number of ways to respond to a situation and it all begins in your mind.

When we give others the power to change your mind and how you see yourself you can be left feeling undeserving and not-enough. The words become who we are. Instead, choose the words wisely as you gather descriptions of yourself from those around you. Be selective about what you decide makes you who you are and show the world that you are important and you have something to contribute.
 
Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.

Kid’s Worry Too: How do you know if your child is worried?

July 3, 2018

Headaches, stomach aches, sleepless nights, trouble falling asleep….all of these symptoms are common complaints that we see in the office every day. While ruling out a medical cause is of utmost importance, keeping a log on the frequency and timing of these complaints can be insightful to both your children and yourself.

Children are not the best at knowing how to communicate their feelings. Sometimes with changes in the home (no matter if they are positive or negative) come feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. While you may be busy worried about very complicated “adult problems”, your child is watching and trying to make sense of what is going on with their limited knowledge of the situation. Talk to your children about change. Ask them if they have any questions…their questions may surprise you!

Try to notice when your child is complaining of their aches and pains...is it during the school year? on the weekends? in the afternoon? after visiting a family member or friend? Once you’ve taken the time to notice patterns, sit down to talk to your child. It is never too young to initiate conversation and ask questions. Every stage of childhood will bring with it different challenges and concerns. Early childhood is the perfect time to develop and build on your parent-child relationship.

When you speak with your child, try not to focus on the aches and pains. Instead, ask general questions about how they are feeling, how school is going, how their friends are, etc. If there are big changes in the family (illness, divorce, moving, new baby) bring up the topic. Preface the conversation perhaps with “I know there has been a lot going on lately, what do you think about it?” “Is there anything that you are worried about or have been thinking about?”

Regardless of your child’s response, this sends the message to your child that it’s okay to ask questions and it’s okay to feel worried or concerned. Even if your child is not willing to talk when you approach them, they may just walk up to you one day or bring it up perhaps at bedtime when they are ready. Just be ready to listen. When your child starts the conversation, put down your cell phone and give them your full attention.

So the next time your child complains of random aches and pains, instead of just reaching for the bottle of Tylenol, pause and stop to think if this could be a manifestation of something more.…The only thing guaranteed in life is change. The earlier your child learns this lesson, the better their coping skills will be. It is never too early to learn.

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.
**if your child’s symptoms worsen over time, persist or become more frequent, of course seek medical attention to rule out a potential medical cause