Over the last 60 years, the rates of stress-related mental disorders in children have increased dramatically. It’s left parents and educators struggling to find answers as to why this shift has been so dramatic over such a relatively short period of time. To add to the perplexity, these increases seem to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. “They do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any other kinds of national or world events that people often talk about as affecting young people’s mental states” (Gray, 2013).

Looking over the last several decades of research done by psychologists however, one thing we have learned for sure about anxiety and depression is that “they correlate strongly with people’s sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. Those who believe they are in charge of their own fate are much less likely to become anxious or depressed than are those who believe they are victims of circumstances beyond their control” (Gray, 2013). Psychologists refer to these two categories as “locus of control”. External locus of control refers to those who are more prone to claim lack of personal control and Internal locus of control refers to those who believe they personally have control over their circumstances and outcomes. “Research has shown that those with an external locus of control are less likely to take responsibility for their own health, their own futures, and their communities than are those with an internal locus” (Gray, 2013).

So how do we as parents and educators empower our kids to take control of their own lives? (Side Note: I recognize there needs to be a healthy balance between directing our own lives and being attentive to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit- this too is of great importance and needs to be instilled in the hearts of our children.) How can we create an environment where kids take the initiative to determine an outcome rather than relying on “fate” or someone else to determine the outcome for them? How can we help them develop and internal locus of control rather than an external?

In his book “Free to Learn”, Peter Gray explains: 

“Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In child-led play children really do have control and can practice asserting it. Children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. In vigorous outdoor play, children deliberately dose themselves with moderate amounts of fear- as they swing, slide, or twirl on playground equipment, climb monkey bars or tress, or skateboard down banisters- and they thereby learn how to control not only their bodies, but also their fear. In social play children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts. Free play is also natures’ means of helping children discover what they love. In their play children try out many activities and discover where their talents and predilections lie. None of these lessons can be taught through verbal means; they can be learned only through experience, which free-play provides. The predominant emotions of play are interest and joy”.

So how can we foster an environment for the development of confident, happy kids? Step back and give them the freedom to direct the play. At TimberNook it is our hope to create this environment for our kids, because we understand the how critical it is for their development and over-all well-being.

Kensie Wiebe is the TimberNook Director at LCA. She loves engaging kids in outdoor exploration, spending time with her family and taking stunning photos.

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