In recent years it has become more and more common to fill every moment of your child’s day. Society places great importance on educational activities and many parents feel that every moment of their child’s day should have a purpose. If that doesn’t happen, it’s very easy to hear that little voice in your head telling you that you are not being a “good” parent and you are letting your child down.

Despite this huge increase in formal activities which we hope will create happy rounded individuals, studies don’t support this outcome. In fact, many countries are reporting ever higher levels of stress and unhappiness, even in children. A report conducted by the University of York, published in 2016, ranked England 13th out of 16 countries when considering children’s happiness and life satisfaction. Romania, Turkey and Poland were among the countries whose children ranked their happiness higher. Quite shocking when you consider we are one of the largest economies in the world. Every year since 2012 a “World Happiness Report” has been conducted. Data is collected from over 150 countries. And every year since the report has been conducted, the top scoring countries have included Nordic countries; Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland.

Denmark is of particular interest because as a society they place a great emphasis on the importance in play for children. The book The Danish Way of Parenting was published in 2016 and dedicates a whole chapter to the importance of play. The writers of the book, Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl wanted to research what makes Danish people and in particular, Danish children so happy. Their research illustrated to them just how important free play is and how incorporated it is into Danish life. For a long time Danish children didn’t start formal education until after the age of 7. Educators felt that children should spend as long as possible just being “children” and playing. Even today Danish children under 10 finish school at 2 pm and then have the option of going to “free-time school”. Danish education and lifestyle focuses on the whole person, not just education, sports or other skills.

So why is play important? When children engage in play they are learning about the world around them, their place in it, how to interpret it, how to cope with it and how to engage with others. Have you ever watched your child play unnoticed? Heard them replaying a conversation or interaction they may have had earlier in the day? Telling Teddy that she’s been rude and needs a time out? Children love to role play. This kind of free play gives them the tools to cope in the wider world. It’s all well and good being a high achiever but it’s of huge importance to be able to cope with the ups and downs life brings.

How can you incorporate more playtime into your child’s life? Here are a few tips:

1) Don’t over-schedule. Although you want to do the best for your child/ren it’s OK not to have a formal activity every day.

2) Don’t rely on technology. It’s everywhere these days, integral and important. But a break is good too. Set limits.

3) Get outside. Nature is wonderful for play. Make sure you’ve got wet gear for wet days and sunny gear for sunny days and get out there!

4) Get creative! Art is wonderful for the soul and for growth. Leave out paper and crayons for them to use freely or get mucky with paint or chalks outside. Don’t interfere!

5) Leave them alone. Don’t leave the house, obviously, but encourage them to play alone or with their siblings/friends. And don’t intervene too quickly if a difficult situation arises. Children need to learn how to deal with each other.

Play is not a silly “childish” thing. It’s a wonderful tool that should be embraced. Let go of the guilt that tells you your child must be busy and proactive at all times. Let them be a child!