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The Power of Play: Using Creative Activities to Promote Children's Mental Health

About 11 months ago By Michelle Tilley

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The Children's Society reports that in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having mental health problems has increased. In 2020, NHS data shows that one in six (16.0%) children aged 5 to 16 years have a probable mental disorder, increasing from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017. 

Recent studies show that one in 10 primary school children aged five to 10 has an identifiable mental health condition. That’s around three children in every class. And in secondary schools, almost half (46%) said pupils' mental and emotional health was the biggest challenge in helping them catch up with learning. 

Nowadays, mental wellbeing is a global topic of discussion, but often children’s mental health is overlooked. If a child's wellbeing is neglected, it has repercussions on their cognitive development, as it may be difficult for them to understand and process normal negative feelings. 

In a post-COVID-19 world, it leaves the question, what can teachers and schools do to promote positive mental health and emotional wellbeing in children? 

The role of play in promoting positive mental health

The primary occupation of a child is play (Nandy et al., 2020). Play is when children develop many problem-solving skills, build confidence, and establish friendships.Solving problems and coming up with creative solutions during a game gives students a sense of accomplishment. 

There is a research-backed correlation between play and learning, as play is an essential part of children’s development (Dell’Angela et al., 2020; Lee et al., 2020; Yilmaz, 2016).A University of Exeter study showed that children who spend more time playing have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Giving children space to play enables them to work through feelings while acting like children. Play gives them a way to express things they are struggling with but have the words to explain. By recreating events through imaginative play, younger pupils try to understand the impact of what has happened.

Make-believe play helps children make sense of the unknown. Children who learn through play develop skills. They grow their confidence and resilience by setting the rules of their own games. They can speak their mind and say what’s wrong. And they have greater control over their emotional responses. These are powerful tools to protect pupils' mental health.

How can teachers use creative activities to promote children’s mental health?

There are many creative activities teachers can use to promote children’s mental health, help pupils express their emotions,  build resilience, and develop coping skills.

Journaling 

Journaling can improve emotional development, self-esteem, confidence, and communication. Journaling can help de-escalate feelings after an outburst and minimise emotional outbursts or tantrums. It can help children improve social skills by encouraging self-reflection from a young age. 

As pupils learn to express themselves in written form, they’re leaving their thoughts, worries, and feelings on paper, which helps them to process their emotions in an effective way. Not only is it a creative outlet for children to learn how to articulate their feelings, but pupils can build their motor skills, and improve handwriting.

While written journaling might work better for KS2, younger pupils can benefit from bullet journals. These provide a balance of structure and creativity. Pupils can open a blank page and fill it with anything — stickers, artwork, or lists of things they love.  Pupils can make any type of journal more creative and personal with glitter pens, colours, or photos.

Art class

Set up an arts and crafts session. Children love to get creative. Encouraging them to express themselves through art is a way to check in with how they’re feeling. Whether they love painting, colouring, or sculpting, this creative activity will be a huge hit! Craft ideas include:

  • Setting up a colouring afternoon with crayons, pencils and felt tips

  • Organising a sculpting competition using playdough

  • Use simple materials (such as paper plates, straws, stickers, etc.) to create classroom decorations.

Older pupils could try mindfulness colouring which has become popular with adults. 

Free write

More appropriate for KS2, providing a writing prompt and giving children 30 minutes to write can be creative and fun, not to mention great writing practice. The Literacy Shed has writing prompts.

Movement Breaks
These can help teachers too! Exercise encourages the body to produce endorphins, our feel-good hormones, which give teachers and pupils an instant mood boost.

Consider:

  • Basic yoga poses

  • A5-minute workout by Joe Wicks 

  • Shaking limbs for a couple of minutes

Classroom Yoga

Yoga encourages movement, stretching, relaxation and mindfulness. Many yoga poses are based on animals, and this gets young students excited to try this low-impact activity. Some yoga poses:

  • Cat/cow 

  • Downward-facing dog 

  • Cobra 

The daily mile

Between lessons, take your class outside to complete the daily mile. The class spends 10 minutes running around the playground. With many benefits, the daily mile requires no planning or equipment. It develops healthy habits, and, with consistency, children can feel a sense of achievement as their fitness levels increase. It is inclusive and fun, and students can return to class ready for learning. More information is here.

Mindfulness box 

Fill a box with cards outlining mindfulness activities for a calm end to the day (find free resources on Twinkl and other websites). They encourage children to think about how to embed positive mental health alongside strategies to regulate emotions. Activities could include breathing exercises. It is most effective when integrated into daily routine. 

Go outside

Studies show that being outdoors in nature promotes mental health, wellbeing and growth among children in many ways. So much so, outdoor activities have long been part of the curriculum in Scandinavian countries such as Finland

Instigate play outdoors using positive reinforcement. For example, praise your class for ‘working hard’ and take them outside for ten minutes daily. Depending on your playground, activities could include a butterfly count or other outdoor activities.

Drama 

Role play and improvisation can be explored. Divide pupils into groups with a scenario to act out and discuss the outcomes (e.g. a situation and ask what they would do?) Focus on students’ emotions they may feel if they were in a particular situation. Improvisation aids creativity and enables pupils to have fun and laugh. 

Other ideas 

  • Friday fun - engage in colouring, crosswords, journaling or sudoku (age appropriate) to get their brains going before beginning lessons.  

  • Music - is often a powerful outlet for emotions. Pupils of all ages can enjoy listening to and creating music.

  • Letter writing - can be an effective way to get pupils to talk about their feelings, hence working on self-expression and communication skills.

  • Planting a flower in the classroom means that pupils will learn to be patient. Assigning a pupil to look after the plant each week gives a sense of responsibility and independence. 

  • Mood tracker - a fun mood checker that pupils do once a day or week helps them express their feelings and identify why they are feeling an emotion.

Pupils of all ages respond best to content they enjoy, and teachers see first hand how fun and engaging content has a positive impact on children’s mental health and on their academic performance.

We have a wide range of CPD courses that can help you support the children you work with.