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Laugh Until You Cry: The Use of Play as Stress Management in Children

Sasha M. Foster's picture

Among the animal kingdom, play is almost universal in infants and adolescents, and humans are no exception. While play can sometimes be more dangerous than helpful in the wild, our children use it in another way: as escapism from real world problems and a method of processing their emotions and thoughts on these problems. Both Molly Knefel’s article Kid Stuff and Butterfly’s posting on two scenes of play from their childhood illustrate this idea, though from two different perspectives.

In her article Kid Stuff, Molly Knefel depicts both the worries of her young students, and the ways in which their play allows them to both express their fears and escape from their real world concerns. As a teacher in an after-school arts enrichment program, Knefel interacts with minority students and hih-poverty students on a regular basis.  ‘Her’ children are middle school-aged, old enough to know and worry about “bullying, sex, gang violence, [and] drugs,” but still young enough that they play at any given opportunity.  She proposes that their problems are primarily the fact that adults see them as “at risk”; instead of seeing the children as little kids, adults in positions of power see them as the ‘threats to society’ that they have the potential to become. The real-world implications of these expectations of failure have a direct impact on the lives of these children, as it leads to the justification of the systemic injustices against them; moreover, it affects the way they play. Knefel’s students deal with the insecurity of their environment by throwing themselves into their play as whole-heartedly as possible. They play the “laughing game,” in which the goal is to make everyone laugh as hard as possible. Laughing has been proven to help with stress and depression, and by creating this game the children have inadvertently revealed not only the depth of their concerns, but the resilience that playing endows them with.

Butterfly’s article emphasized a different aspect of play. In their article, they describe two different scenes of play form their childhood; one in a fairly dangerous neighborhood in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and another from Lynn, MA. In Santo Domingo, a shooting interrupts a game they are playing with friends, and they retreat to their grandmother’s house for safety. In the second anecdote, Butterfly talks about rushing through their homework after school so she would have time to play with her neighbor. Play is the bridge that connects these two seemingly opposite worlds, and despite the differences between them, Butterfly asserts that they never felt a difference between the play in each place. Play is a universal concept for children, and a crucial one for their development and mental health; as Butterfly so aptly states, “Kids just want to play, and they’ll find a way to do so regardless.”

Both Knefel’s article and Butterfly’s post have convinced me that play is not only a universal concept among children, but also a necessity for their mental health and fabled resilience. No matter where they are, what their advantages or disadvantages, or the weight of their concerns, children’s instinct to play is so powerful that it can overcome even the most stressful of situations. In fact, that instinct is a boon, as evidenced by the children in the article and Butterfly’s own younger self: when life is painful, start playing. When you worry about gangs, drugs, sex, and racism, laugh with your friends until you cry. When bullets start flying, hide and think about your chances of winning when you resume the game. Play allows children both a method of escaping and processing their stress, one similar to the way that adults watch satirical news programs to laugh about depressing news. By dealing with their concerns through play, children distance themselves from the reality of those problems, and reclaim agency from that which frightens them.

Play is a fundamental part of all childhoods, no matter where those childhoods are spent. In her article Kid Stuff, Knefel describes her students through the eyes of someone who knows the pressures placed upon them, and is awed by their ability to maintain their sense of “fun” despite them. Butterfly describes two different scenes of play from her childhood, and confesses that she felt no difference between the two. Both the article and the post’s descriptions of play evince the necessity of play to children’s mental health, and how they use play to deal with the pressures of their lives.