Going into year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. I am currently reading Atlas of the Heart by Dr. Brene Brown and she says that “mindful play, or no-agenda, non-doing time, is the cure for overwhelm,” (7). This quote resonated with me personally, because I have found that in an overwhelming time as a school administrator, golf, my version of mindful play, is one of the few things that brings me ease right now. For me, golf is four hours of outside time playing. I am away from my phone and computer and chasing a ball around the course with a club helps my peace of mind.
Our teens are feeling overwhelmed as well.They are trying to navigate high school, social situations, and family in addition to the weight of the pandemic. The quote made me think about what screenless mindful play could look like for teenagers and how we can help them achieve some much needed downtime. When teens are feeling overwhelmed and over scheduled, we may need to help them recognize this and encourage play.
According to Dr. Stuart Brown, the leading researcher on play, play is “purposeless, all consuming, and fun.” For teens, my mind immediately goes to recreational sports, not the intense kind of competitive sport on a club team with expected outcomes. At school, my high school students are thrilled when we put up a volleyball net on the lawn and roll out some balls during lunch. There is usually a group of about 30 kids playing on one net, who are joking, laughing, and being kids. I love watching them play volleyball for fun because the varsity volleyball players are right alongside students who are not athletes and they are just as engaged in the game. It is a moment of levity in the middle of a school day. Some other recreational sports that I have seen teens enjoy are frisbee or frisbee golf, latterball, Spikeball or cornhole. Once we put out a cornhole set at one of our school dances. Students had so much fun playing they broke a chandelier.
Board games and card games are also suggestions for mindful play. Settlers of Catan is a popular board game for teen groups. I also recommend the card game Exploding Kittens because the game is easy to understand and it travels well. At school, there is usually a group of students who carry playing cards in their backpacks. The other day there were four girls playing an intense game of BS during study hall at the end of the school day. They were giggling and having fun, and I realized that this was a great way for them to relax at the end of the semester. I was sure they had homework and finals to study for, but it seemed like too important of a wellness moment for me to tell them to stop. Balance is important too.
On a creative note, during our self care fair at school the friendship bracelet making and the slime making booths are always a huge hit. Coloring, puzzles, and crafts making may not fit Dr. Brown’s definition of play directly, but I think there is value in being creative and using your hands during downtime. Building and creating things can definitely be explorative and playful to help ease the mind.
These are just suggestions of possible mindful play for teenagers. Until mindful play becomes a habit, I think it is important to help teens schedule this time in their lives. Help them look at their week or weekend and identify a block of time they can use to be playful. For me, this looks like sending myself a calendar invite for a golf tee time. For teens this probably looks like setting aside a few hours away from their school work, job, or family obligations to rest their brains. Also, having a caring adult simply give them permission to be a kid for a few hours, to play, may feel like a huge relief. Help them to know that it is healthy to have moments of unstructured time. Model this by playing with them!
My hope is that we can guide our teens to find their own mindful play practice that helps them feel rejuvenated after being overwhelmed. Cultivating play as a form of wellness in the teenage years will lead to playful and balanced adults. We can all use moments of lightness, fun, and play in our lives.
Author’s note: I want to acknowledge that there is an air of privilege around teenagers or families who are able to set time aside to practice mindful play. I know that for many, this is not possible to make ends meet. However, I think that regardless of socioeconomic status, mental health is important and my hope is that we can raise awareness and work together to change the entire economic and health care system so all people can live comfortably and live a balanced life. It starts with bringing the issues to light in conversation, and then hopefully together we can work to bring change. No one should be forced to live in a state of constant overwhelm. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and how we can work together to support teens across all walks of life.