We are well aware of how playing is beneficial for children at every level: cognitive, physical, emotional, social, among others. Child specialists have agreed that when parents intervene positively with their children as they play, this can positively impact their relationship and foster the child’s imagination. But, do you know that the level of parental interaction plays an important role in the child’s physical health, as well?
A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that “maternal responsiveness during free play and gentle control during clean-up appear to protect against weight gain, especially for toddlers with lower regulatory abilities”. In addition to this, the authors also found that “greater levels of gentle control may have adverse effects on BMI (body mass index) for well-regulated toddlers.”
Because childhood obesity is a growing epidemic in the world, these studies and results alert us to improve our prevention efforts for this and other associated illnesses. According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation, this growing epidemic is placing children at a higher risk of developing other premature onset conditions, which include: diabetes, heart conditions, stress, depression, among others.
The two important factors in this study
The researchers found that there were two important factors in the results: the level of engagement of mothers during free play and the self-regulatory skills the child already possessed. Self-regulation is an important developmental skill that gets strengthened with appropriate and kind limit-setting from the child’s environment.
However, the deadly combination of increased screen time and decreased physical activity are developing a new generation of children with low self-regulatory skills. As such, a healthy limit-setting and – as the researchers put it – “gentle control” is recommended to boost children’s physical and mental health.
In addition to this, how responsive the mother was during free play was also a key factor. As mentioned in one of my blog posts for Connecting Through Play, responsiveness depends on:
- The ability to let the child lead the play session
- The ability to immerse in the child’s story and characters during play – no matter how nonsensical they may seem
- The ability to respond to the child’s story with the appropriate emotion – for example, anger when something outrageous has happened, or fear when the villain is close to winning the battle
A parent’s responsiveness means following the child’s story and their logic, rather than leading the way. After all, it is their playing session.
What does “gentle control” look like in
As far as the second key factor, gentle control was particularly important when it came time to clean up. The interesting finding in this study is that the level of control was more important. But, how do we know how much limits to impose? How to communicate them with our children? And, how do we know which child needs it more?
I go by a simple, yet powerful rule: when a child has trouble with frustration tolerance, they need opportunities to feel frustrated. This just means that when children are having low self-regulatory skills (which can be translated as refusing to clean up after a play session), adults are responsible to set up scenarios help them strengthen this. Some ways to help these children are:
- Establishing clear rules and boundaries before playing
- Setting up audio or visual cues to let them know when it’s almost time to clean up
- Join them in the cleanup session (maybe even make it fun by turning it into a competition!)
Similarly, for children who already have strong self-regulatory skills, it’s best to not press them. A simple verbal or visual cue is enough for them, and a gentle reminder.
What do you think about parental responsiveness and “gentle control” during playtime? Do you think it’s necessary? Leave a comment down below to let me know what you think!