Thursday, March 8, 2018

Mindfulness vs play: Why are kids more stressed than ever? A ReadItTorial

After 8 years of book blogging, and 10 years as a parent, I can honestly say that I think both my wife and I are getting better at spotting trends. 

First as tiny specks in the distance, then as a veritable flood of very similar book themes hitting our doormat in the course of building up our review schedule. Top topic of the moment very much seems to be "Mindfulness" and it's really not difficult to see why. 

I first encountered mindfulness through work, a taster session run through our Occupational Health department some years ago and at the time the ideas being discussed seemed pretty revolutionary, 'out there' and sadly (in my case) too good to be true. Could concentrating on the here and now be the answer to dumping a ton of work (and home) related stress? 

From the Wikipedia definition of Mindfulness: 

Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment,[1][2][3] which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.[2][4][5] The term "mindfulness" is a translation of the Pali term sati,[6] which is a significant element of Buddhist traditions.[7][8] In Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is utilized to develop self-knowledge and wisdom that gradually lead to what is described as enlightenment or the complete freedom from suffering.[7] The recent[when?] popularity of mindfulness in the West is generally considered to have been initiated by Jon Kabat-Zinn.[9][10]

Studies have shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety,[11][3] and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.[11][12]
"Rumination and Worry" are the two key words to pick out from that final paragraph, with children now more prone to both. The majority of their worries stem (sadly) from the increased pressure on children from an increasingly younger age to perform well in school, become numerate and literate to the current government-measured standards of same, and the slow but sure erosion of childhood as a notion as we (laughably) claim to be preparing our children for a better brighter future in adulthood. 

Some mindfulness practises would definitely have helped C when she was having a tough time with anxiety, stemming from a very early age and problems with drop-offs at nursery (as working parents, we had absolutely no choice but to place her in nursery as a tiny toddler and her drop-off anxiety continued well beyond reception and into early years). C's anxiety manifests itself in two ways, rumination over what the particular day will hold, and worry about the 'unknown' (we very quickly noticed that she would be more relaxed and calm if she had foreknowledge of the structure of her day at nursery or school, and even when we went out as a family at weekends she always seemed to need to know where we were going rather than just relaxing in the moment, mindfully. 

Now of course in upper juniors, on the cusp of senior school all her rumination and worry is concentrated in the usual areas of childhood anxiety. Homework, the huge seemingly ever-constant pressure of homework and the ridiculous nightly workload she's lumbered with (which still has me spitting bile, as you've probably noticed) and the added pressure of keeping up certain standards while in school where competition is actively encouraged (but not always in very 'fair' ways, from my observation). 

During the long Christmas break we noticed that it took a good few days before she could actually remember how to be a kid, and just PLAY. We've never had a problem with her amusing herself per se, as there are always books around, her default activity will always be to read. But actually playing with toys - you know - the sort of things we did as kids - that's another matter entirely and I still believe that although mindfulness has recognisable benefits for kids who do worry and cogitate over everything, play is just as effective a 'therapy'. 

Within a few days she started to haul toys out of the cupboards at home that had been put away. As an only child it obviously makes a difference that in general she is used to playing on her own (but we also play with her a lot, as substitute older sibs and with both of us having fairly 'young' minds and enjoying playing with her just as much as she enjoys the attention of us playing with her). 

Play is all about the moment, it's all about constructing something in the here and now, about letting your imagination fly, in creative terms letting your imagination spill out onto the paper or construct itself into an amazing 'make'. 

In most of the mindfulness books we've seen, play is of course mentioned a lot but always as a side topic compared to the rather more grown up concepts of mindfulness like simple relaxation exercises, counting, breathing, clearing your mind. 

It seems crazy to think that a generation of kids are growing up needing books to tell them how to relax. I think it's extremely sad that kids face the levels of pressure that they do and I really don't see how this is benefitting anyone.