I was talking to a Lehigh student recently and she mentioned a project that she was working on. Intrigued, I asked what the topic was and she said she was researching why college students (aka her friends) are stressed, have anxiety, and can't seem to handle life as an adult. It seems that they do not have the confidence or ability to make a decision without a grown up interjecting. Intrigued, I decided to look into this topic and was slightly surprised at what I found.
Over a decade ago, The Atlantic published an article titled: All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids are More Anxious and Depressed. In it, they discussed the role of play and how it has been on the decline going all the way back to 1955. Think back to your childhood for a moment and then compare that to your own child's. Where are the differences? In my estimation, it is in the area of structured activities versus unstructured activities. I remember games of football at the park, basketball anywhere there was a hoop, or street hockey outside of my parents house. What I do not remember is year-round training for sport, club/AAU tournaments, standardized test prep, "college showcases" or anything of the like.
As achievement becomes the primary focus for youth endeavors, low stress activities like free play get ignored. This has some long term detrimental effects. The unstructured environment associated with play offers children the opportunity to have a little say in their life. It gives them the power to control their own actions without a parent, coach or teacher telling them what they can and can't do. They pick the rules, they pick the teams, they keep score and they play. If a problem arises, they work through it and find a resolution. If a kid isn't playing fair, they handle it. If someone decides to not treat others well, they won't be asked back to play. If they lose or fail, they learn from it. They don't dwell, they move on. These are the lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom or in a textbook. They must be lived and they must be felt.
Play provides a child endless opportunities to learn. Allowing kids a little autonomy to handle stressful situations as a youth provides an opportunity for a perfect stress-free dress rehearsal. The result of all this will be a strong, resilient child prepared to handle what the world has thrown their way!
P.S. If you want more information on this, check out the article linked about from The Atlantic or read the full report from The American Journal of Play: The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents by Peter Gray, Psychology Researcher and Scholar