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Imagine That: The Importance of Creative Play for Early Adolescents

Mark Sobel, LCSW | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys and Early Adolescents

The long-term mental health effects of isolation due to COVID-19 are yet to be determined, but there are strong indications that anxiety and depression, specifically for children and adolescents, rise even after quarantining. For young teens, one of the best antidotes to isolation and poor mental health is simple: play. 

When I harken back to my own childhood, the term “play date” conjures memories of some of my earliest friendships and the simplest times of joy, creativity, and collaboration. However, for one who is right in that pivotal transition from childhood to early adolescence, the term play date undoubtedly yields an earth-shattering eye roll. 

The idea of play often has connotations of youthfulness, innocence, and perhaps, even immaturity. No wonder then that the average middle schooler, who so often yearns to be older than their years (or at least treated as such), recoils at this implication. And, for parents of a young teen who is budding into adulthood, the impending pressures associated with high school can make it increasingly tempting to deprioritize fun and play, casting them aside as childhood frivolities. However, in these times of decreasing in-person social interactions and rising instances of depression and anxiety for young teens, the importance of play has never mattered more.  

Clinical therapist Mark Sobel and a pre-teen student at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy smile and raise their hands above their heads..

What is Play?

First, let’s talk about what play is and isn’t. As stated simply yet profoundly by Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play“Play is more than just fun.”  Play can come in myriad forms, but generally meets five criteria. Play is:

  1. self-chosen and self-directed,
  2. intrinsically motivated (means are more valued than ends), 
  3. guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity, 
  4. imaginative, 
  5. and conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind. 

Given these five foundational components, play is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. A highly structured and complex game where someone else sets all the rules and monitors or manages the content may not actually be experienced as play for the child (even if it seems fun). Alternatively, an activity as mundane as washing the dishes or cleaning one’s room can absolutely be play, with the right dose of creativity, freedom of choice, and imagination. As explained by Dr. Ben Mardell, a leading educator and researcher in the field of play, “The secret sauce is playfulnessthe ability to see a situation and be curious about it, realize it can be enjoyable, and take agency over it.” In this sense, what really matters it not the activity at hand, but rather the approach to the activity.  

A group of adolescent students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy smile as they work together to set up a bear hang.

The Benefits of Play

Not only are there multiple benefits of play, but the negative consequences of play deprivation can be massive. Group play specifically serves as a powerful catalyst for strong parent-child bonds and healthy maturation. Here is a list of some of the benefits play provides for emotional, social, cognitive, and physical development.  

Emotional Development 

  • Self-regulation 
  • Practicing reciprocity (when to lead and when to follow) 
  • Frustration tolerance and managing anticipatory anxiety 

Social Development 

  • Noticing social cues 
  • Practicing empathy 
  • Self-advocacy/expression balanced with compromise 

Cognitive Development 

  • Creative thinking 
  • Executive functioning skills 
  • Problem solving 

Physical Development 

  • Appropriate risk taking 
  • Greater attunement to physical sensations in one’s own body 
  • Increased proprioception (the awareness of where body parts are in physical space at any point in time, without having to look at them) 

There are also indications that play has a critical role in promoting neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity is the brain’s incredible ability to change, adapt, and regenerate on a molecular and synaptic level as a person moves through life. Engaging in play has been shown to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) levels while increasing secretion of a specific protein known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is tied directly to fostering neuroplasticity. 

A group of adolescent girls wearing orange coats smile and act silly at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

Wilderness Therapy and Play

Wilderness therapy provides an unparalleled playground in which early adolescents can join in community together, cultivate a sense of group culture, and bond as they confront and overcome adversity and difficulties. The field guides are intentional and creative in engaging the students and framing these challenges with a playful approach, infused with empathy as well as fun.    

Using Dr. Mardell’s definition of playfulness as “the ability to see a situation and be curious about it, realize it can be enjoyable, and take agency over it,” encouraging and modeling play is incorporated into the fabric of almost everything at Open Sky. It can show up in overt ways, such as organized group games throughout the day or team challenges and initiatives. More often, though, it shows up as a subtle yet consistent through line every day in wilderness, where a culture of playfulness is integrated into things that could easily be mundane. This can take many forms, from creatively adding elements of fun to camp chores, gamifying” nighttime routines, or adding some healthy competition when the group gathers water and firewood. Even therapy sessions can have an infusion of playfulness to them! In fact, it’s necessary.  

Ultimately, play is a universal human language that allows us to connect and feel seen by one another, no matter the age. So, though the term “play date” will still get that eye roll, playfulness should be a prominent and permanent fixture in your relationship with your child and encouraged as often as possible. 

August 12th, 2021

Mark Sobel, LCSW | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys and Early Adolescents