What Danish Parents Know About The Power Of Play

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
9:00 am
06/17/16

Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

We all want our kids to be happy. And happiness is something the Danes have supposedly figured out, with research consistently showing that residents of Denmark are among the happiest in the world. So, it’s not a huge surprise that an article we published on Danish parenting tips has proved to be one of our most-read. Due to this popularity, we decided to do a deep-dive into some of the bigger philosophies rooted in Danish culture with The Danish Way of Parenting authors Jessica Alexander and psychotherapist Iben Sandahl leading the way. Here, we talk to them about the Danes’ belief in the power of play.

Modern parents get a lot of flack for over-scheduling their kids. What’s your take on that?
“These days it almost feels like you are depriving your kids by not enrolling them in myriad courses: baby yoga, swimming, tennis, piano, Spanish, organic cupcake making, tee ball, and so on. I think most parents can relate to that deep-seated feeling of ‘Am I doing enough?’ when they hear what other kids are ‘taking’ in their spare time. The question we might ask is: Who are we doing this for? Are we doing it for our kids’ internal development or because we feel pressured as parents to do it? Sometimes, it’s the more ‘educated’ parents that feel more pressure to develop their kids as a subtle sign of their own success. But what if something as simple as play were actually the most educated choice of all?”

Tell us how the importance of play is stressed in Denmark.
“From the dawn of the first educational theory in Denmark in 1871, play has been seen as crucial—not optional—to a child’s development. Even now, children up until the age of 10 leave regular school to go to something called ‘free time school’ where they are encouraged to play. This is incredible if you think about it! Danes feel play is so fundamental to building the ‘whole child’ that all the Danish parents we interviewed for our book found the idea of excessive focus on ‘developing’ children quite odd. As they see it, if children are always performing to obtain something—good grades, awards, or praise from teachers or parents—then how do they learn to develop their true inner drive?”

Why is play considered healthy?
“Scientists have been studying play in animals for years trying to work out its evolutionary purpose. What they have discovered is play is a way to learn to cope with stress. Hanging from bars, play fighting, chasing each other, and learning how to negotiate are all things that occur in play. Children practice putting themselves into fight or flight and stressful situations to see how much they can handle and then they manage how far they want to go with it. They aren’t constantly striving to obtain something in an adult-created environment: an award, a grade, or parental approval. In play there are no pedestals, no special praise, or trophies. Children are motivated by their own desire to keep the game alive and their imaginations.”

How can parents start to incorporate this idea into their lives?
“We have to remember that what children want most of all is to feel calm and good with their parents. Where do you feel most calm, at ease, and free from the pressure of others? Where can you relax and create more ‘hygge’ (cozy time) with your family? Children need time to decompress from their days and take life in and reflect. They need to play to act out what they experience in the adult world and they need to feel loved even when they aren’t performing.”

With extracurriculars becoming the normal expectation in the U.S., is there any catch-22 in focusing on play?
“The loop we get into as parents is that we feel extra classes are necessary to get ahead because society pushes us to believe that extra classes are necessary to get ahead. This makes everyone feel more anxious. ‘Am I doing enough?’ is the frantic question we constantly ask ourselves. So, the next time you are considering enrolling your toddler in the block-building math class that unconsciously prepares them for the entrance exam at Harvard, or the umpteenth sport or even the first piano lesson—if it stresses you out, just try to breathe and relax. Your child is mirroring what you want and the stress you feel wanting it for them. Put out some toys, take away the iPads, go outdoors somewhere beautiful and let them play. We may all soon discover that simple ‘play’—allowing children to develop their own coping mechanisms and inner drive—was always the most educated and educating choice of all.”

“We have all thought about what it means to be a parent, but how often have we thought about what it means to be an American parent? Many of us have a vague idea of what ‘the right way’ to parent is, but we don’t really know why or how it came to be ‘the right way.’ These implicit ideas we have about the right way to raise a child are called parental ethnotheories. These beliefs and values are so engrained in us that it’s almost impossible to see them objectively. We might look at practices in other countries and think they seem crazy, but they are just as normal to those people as our ways are to us. It takes a real paradigm shift to be able to examine our own cultural norms and see if anything could be changed.”

What do you guys think? Do your kids have enough play in their lives? Let us know in the comments.

For more Danish parenting advice, read our first article, and scoop up The Danish Way Of Parenting: A Guide To Raising The Happiest Kids in the World. You can also visit Alexander’s website and Facebook page.

 

Leave a Comment

31 comments

Sharron Duce

I agree, I don’t think children need all the pressure of so many after school activities, Yes maybe if they enjoy dance, sport etc ok, But its music, language class, as well as many organised experiences, I think kids like to just play, kick a soccer ball around, play in dirt and make mud pies these are all the things kids like to do, No wonder children are becoming obese they just need to play, Play as children do, Not play as adults consider is play, learning to get along with others, being inventive with play, Taking turns with peers feeling part of a group.

M b

i used to make mud pies as a child…..now I love to cook! Because of the us pies? Who knows?

Janine Halloran

We are very choosy about what extra curricular activities our kids do and we have a limit of how many things they can do after school during the week. I think it’s very important that children have free time to play and learn how to manage unstructured time, so I make sure my kids have that during the school year. And even this summer, I signed them up for very few camp programs, leaving them time to play and allowing more family time. We’ve even started taking walks as a family after dinner. It’s been great!

Stella francis

Children should be allowed to play connected to nature, get their hands dirty, climb trees play with pets so that they learn to love them, no point in getting them all the modern gadgets and forcing them to sit indoors , with no exercise , Even in nineteen kids used to play outdoor games , like hide n seek, oho kho and kabbadi, to name a few of the games children used to play after school, now they just sit glued to the telly s or computers or mobile phones….

Silvana

Play and reading emotions! are crucial. Needs to be in a very appropriate environment.

Olivia

As a Montessori teacher, I find this article really interesting. If it sounds like the Danish have similar philosophies to Marie Montessori.

Marci Myles

I feel my children have hours each day to incorporate play without electronics. I recently had daycare provider inform me how well my children bring the others to play in their imaginary games. I thought that was part of all children’s lives, but it seems that so many children get caught up in reality that play gets put aside. I have a Danish heritage that my family is proud of. Having opportunities to travel and leave American reality opens ones eyes to larger possiblilities. Although I haven’t explored parenting as much. Kind of a fun thought to concider learning more about!

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[…] into parenting Mike and I have been reading a lot about the importance of play and unstructured time for children, which ultimately led us to asking ourselves why can’t we […]

Heather

My children won’t play unless I play with them. But then I have an anxiety melt down because I don’t want to because it is too awkward for me. I feel like I’m never good enough or fun enough so I run from the entire situation which is really messing them up. I am making my kids crazy

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