One of our favorite environments as children was our visits to sandboxes. While parents may have preferred cleaner alternatives, any “sandbox” environment meant so much to us as we learned the capabilities of our creativity. A sandbox is a place where we can experiment, create, and explore without any real risk of harm, without our usual inhibitions. Our little developing brains can run wild with possibilities. Our creative natures can be fed through tiny castle building, miniature backhoeing, or sculpting. Is it any wonder why Minecraft has gained so much popularity? It’s a massive virtual sandbox!

Playing in a sandbox environment is vitally important for small minds to unfold into more mature minds. Between ages two and three, children begin to realize there’s a whole world outside of themselves and that they can connect with others. We need a place to let our imaginations grow and meld with others. Our access to a playful environment when we’re little has a direct impact on the way our brains are shaped later in life. A young mind is fertile ground for planting developmental seeds and unstructured fun is critically important in that process.

When children play, they learn critical life skills. They learn how they have agency over their actions. They learn how to relate to other children and how their actions impact others. Play shows them the multitude benefits of cooperative behavior. Play builds social competency, an ability to control one’s emotions. It enhances a sense of self-worth and self-reliance and stokes creativity. Children lacking regular play times fall short in all of these attributes.

We take for granted the magnitude of the impact of play when we’re younger, thinking that as adults, it’s simply a waste of time. Video games are often stigmatized as a useless endeavor and occasionally blamed for increases in violent behavior. But when game night always gets replaced with Game of Thrones night, as adults, our social, emotional, and cognitive intelligence become atrophied. Living with a playful attitude, and practicing that disposition through games and art, magnifies our mind’s ability to make novel connections between far flug ideas that would otherwise produce greater positive fruits of our labor.

Play and unstructured positive effort can result in some of the greatest innovation we’ve ever seen. Google encourages its workforce to spend up to a fifth of their work hours on their own “passion projects.” Gmail was one such product of this creative work. Given our current state of discovery, future breakthroughs are going to be made as siloed ideas or departments start to make connections with each other. It happened before in 1440 when the mechanisms of a coin punch and a winepress were combined to make the printing press. In the 21st century, we now have the large Hadron Collider and build-your-own frozen yogurt bars. The combinations could be endless. What can quantum physics tell us about gastronomy?

Engaging in an activity for its own sake, a board game, soccer, painting, and, yes, even video gaming, helps create these connections within our own minds. It fires up the circuitry in our heads that helps us form new ideas. Just like practicing squats at a gym can help you move furniture for a friend, so, too, practicing creative activities can help you make new connections with your work.

Rather than the opposite of work, play should be considered a catalyst to our work. Truthfully, the opposite of play is depression, not work, as Jane McGonigal writes in, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

As we engage in games, we practice being a better version of ourselves. A sandbox environment removes shackles of expectation and recalcitrance. We’re far more motivated to complete a task, we’re more resilient in the face of failure, we’ll be more likely to try different solutions to the same problem, when playing with others, we exercise a greater level of trust, and it’s easier to ask for help. This posture of “gamefulness” often gets lost as soon as we put the controller down, or box up the board game.

What to do when the sandboxes are closed

If playtime in the park is shut down for your little ones, this growth phase may be temporarily disrupted and our kids might behave more clingy and throw more tantrums. If, in a season of quarantine, your young one’s behavior is shifting significantly for the worse, try the tactics listed below. Failing those, reach out to helplines like this one.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a child’s psychologist from Duke University Medical Center who works with families in the aftermath of traumatic events, has a few tips when your family can’t get out. Play and unstructured fun are just as important for little ones as they are for big ones so use these for the whole family.

Create a routine
Setting daily anchors provides a sense of progression instead of stagnation. When we spend extended times at home, it begins to feel like Groundhog’s day, but when you incorporate routine, you exercise a piece of control and progress in your life.

Routines can be as basic as:
0700: Make the bed and find space to read and meditate
0800: Half an hour of play and movement
0900-1200: focused work
1430: Afternoon play break
1900: Cook dinner with the family

Set small goals
We need things to look forward to. During a TBI recovery, it’s especially crucial to have a defined objective in your healing. When our minds don’t have a “next thing” to work toward, we begin to lose a sense of purposefulness in our actions. Our kids need that, too.

Consider goals like:
Clean one room today.
Read two books in the living room.
Try three new recipes this week.
Run up the stairs four times before the coffee’s done.
Learn five new yoga stretches in the next five days.
Work on morning pages with your kids six times in the next two weeks.

If you’re working from home, give your family undivided attention at least 15 minutes every hour 
Working from home and juggling a lack of childcare is a heroic task for any parent. So far as you can, etch out routine time each hour to remind your young ones that you’re accessible and available. This regularity can help assure them that you have not completely detached yet helps you set a healthy boundary when focused work does need to happen. Your mileage may vary.

Talk to them about what’s going on and provide alternatives for connection
Giving children an idea of the bigger picture, and giving them an idea that they can do something productive, says Dr. Gurwich, is important for kids of all ages. The KidTimeStoryTime Youtube channel is a great resource for relevant storytelling. There, you’ll find jewels like the “Hand Washing Song” and the “I Hate to Read” book. The videos provide puppet stories that help kids connect to relatable, fun characters that use the power of story to explain today’s events. Connection equals resilience.

Spend time for self care
It is not reasonable to ask any parent or spouse, or any adult for that matter, to spend 100% of their resource reserve on pouring out to others. Self care right now will likely look different than from your usual routine. It’s hard to go wrong with movement, a cleaner diet, and more routine phone calls to friends and family. Movement, as little as a brisk walk or easy jog for 20-30 minutes a day can trigger a powerful antidepressant effect in your body. Cutting down on sugar and grains will help stabilize your energy and mood. Proactively maintaining communication with others fosters a greater sense that we’re in this together and that your safety net is strong.

Co-op Mode
Jackbox Games have surged in popularity during the outbreak. Designed as digital board games accessible to all abilities, you can use the platform to play from a distance. Use the Discord app on a tablet or computer to share the screen and use your phone as the controller. Their website has instructions on how to get started and have a rotating selection of free-to-play and discounted options. Check out this blog for 21 other social game ideas.

Marcus Farris is the Veteran Wellness Coordinator at Mission 22. He’s a Certified Health Coach and Level 1 Crossfit Trainer.

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