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Building Youth Resilience Through Play


When you meet a kid for the first time, you might ask them something as simple as “What do you like to do for fun?” Inside that innocuous question is a swirling cloud full of incredible depth including identity, belonging, personal growth, and resilience.

Playful Resilience Activities in Childhood

For a moment, I invite you to reflect on your childhood and how you most enjoyed spending your time. What was the special thing that engrossed your entire being? Maybe it was being a member of the soccer team. (Can I get a whoop whoop for post-game orange slices?) Or, maybe it was burning through the pages of a K.A. Applegate book, blurring the lines between imagination and reality. Perhaps it was losing all perception of time as you traveled to the sweet comfort of your own flow state while practicing a musical instrument.

What feelings come up for you when you think about those childhood leisure activities? How did those experiences support who you are now?

For me, spending time outdoors was my refuge as a young person. Sometimes that was in sweet solitude, exploring the dense woods of the undeveloped lot next to my childhood home. It was building rafts out of sticks and racing them down the pine-root-lined-ravines. As I got older, that changed to building massive and intricate structures out of twine and sticks with my friends while camping. Then, eagerly waiting for the crisp air of nightfall and the haunting ghost stories of our Scoutmasters.

Regardless of that childhood activity, those special interests were necessary wells of resilience for you and for me.

building resilience through play

Wells of Resilience

As a career youth worker, and now parent, one of the things I have always appreciated most about youth is their ability to make a game out of anything. Ann Masten is an early resilience scholar and the author of the aptly titled book, Ordinary Magic. When combined with a touch of youthful magic, the most boring tasks and mundane items are transformed into fun, playful, and novel discoveries. It is through this alchemistic transformation that youth keep moving toward the future that they choose.

Even SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) has recognized the power of play in building resilience, because it inevitably involves:

  1. Cognitive development/problem-solving skills
  2. Self-regulation, and
  3. Relationships with caring adults

Think back to your special thing from the beginning of the blog post. Got it in your mind?

Did your thing always come easily to you, or did you have to work at it a bit? New things are always hard, and that helped build your problem-solving skills!

Did your thing have some repetition and predictability to it? Your nervous system found regulation in those patterns, and you knew that in doing that thing, you were safe.

Was there at least one supportive adult involved somewhere in that activity? Shoot yeah! How precious it is to find something that is appropriately challenging, helps sooth your nervous system, and surrounds you with a village of caring adults.

Bonus question: How many of the specific daily bad news headlines do you remember from that same time period? Play and leisure time buffered you from (or at least helped make sense of) the stress of the world.

building resilience through play

Play – The Work of Childhood

That’s why at Crossnore we spend so much time focusing on “the work of childhood” – which is to play. Regardless of circumstance, kids often have very little agency and choice. They are told which school to go to, who their teacher will be, where they will sit, what time they get up and go to sleep, and so on. For kids in the child welfare system, that lack of freedom is compounded exponentially.

Through play and leisure activities, kids get to make small, yet significant choices. Through these leisure processes, kids are actively writing their own life stories, defining who they are, and who they want to become.