Interview with Iben Sandahl: Danish Parenting and Play

Iben Sandahl, author of the bestselling book, The Danish Way of Parenting has recently released her latest book on the importance of play. Deeply rooted in the traditions of Danish parenting, the value of play has long been regarded as essential to the development of the “whole” child, building creativity and resiliency within the child. 

Tell us about your new book; what’s the inspiration behind it? After the release of The Danish Way of Parenting, I was completely unprepared for the extraordinary interest that arose around play. I have often wondered why children love to play and my curiosity led me to figure out what is it play offers and why it is so important to children’s well-being. There are so many fantastic benefits, which I wanted to elaborate for everybody, and that’s why I wrote Play – The Danish Way.

Only 10 percent of American children report spending time outside everyday. Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges and one in six American children have a developmental disability. I think, I am obligated to make people aware of play’s necessary potential. Play is a bigger part of children’s life in Denmark.

Why is play such an important aspect of our children’s lives? All play is based on creativity, and is a part of the exploratory process that is such an important part of being a child. Play helps children stay active, increase their self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect. Improve and maintain their physical and mental health, give them the opportunity to mix with other children, allow them to increase their confidence through developing new skills, promote their imagination, independence and creativity, offer opportunities for children of all abilities and backgrounds to play together, provide opportunities for developing social skills and learning, build resilience through risk taking and challenge, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations. What’s not to like? 

What do you tell the parent who’s a bit more guarded and has difficulty “playing” alongside their child? 
I tell them, that they need to trust in the importance of free and unstructured play. Children need time to play or stay by themselves, because time to digest everyday impressions are important for their well-being. Many activities are now adult-directed or facilitated by adults, which may hamper children’s ability to express themselves freely.

It can definitely be fine with adult-led activities, as they often have good educational principles behind them, but rarely develop spontaneous imagination or imaginative play. If we can leave our parental interaction out, children are able to chose what they are doing, and I think these days we are becoming so into over programming our children that they don’t have that ability to run their own lives.

If we show our children that we don’t have faith in them – that they depend on us all the time – how can they have faith in themselves?

Do you believe children should play with peers their own age, or a diverse range of children – and why? I think it is absolutely fine to mix children of different ages. This enhances the zone of proximal development, allowing one to facilitate the other’s learning, helping each get to a new level naturally. They learn to participate as well as challenge the game. This is teaching the self-control and negotiation skills so necessary in life.

How does the benefits of play shape our children, their well-being, and their overall childhoods? Scientists have been studying play in animals for years, trying to understand its evolutionary purpose. And one thing they are finding is that play is crucial for learning how to cope with stress and their ability to cope in general. It teaches children to be less anxious and teaches them resilience. And resilience has been proven to be one of the most important factors in predicting success as an adult.

With our busy lives, how do we go about being mindful of allowing “play” to be seen as productive rather than a distraction from more important “work”? How do we integrate it more into the lives of our children? When thinking about what we, as adults, need the most when we are stressed or low on energy – silence, peace, or time alone are often the most common things that occur. Why should that be different for our children? Having someone to control everything we do, 24/7 isn’t beneficial for anyone and children need a certain amount of freedom too. Play in and of itself has a therapeutic effect on children, and we should be receptive to our children’s signals.

Make a choice and integrate half an hour in your daily routines for your children to play freely. If they get bored, just say: “good luck, my dear.”

In what ways is “play” important for adults as well? How can we “play” as adults? Play has no age and we should give ourselves over a lifetime opportunity to slip into fantasy worlds driven by amusement and desire for personal development. Especially, in the often hectic lives we live, it will be a gift to find our way to a flow mode through play. We must, as children do, let ourselves delve into our fantasy world and our ideas as deeply as possible. This is where the greatest growth and creativity takes place, which will benefit both our private and professional lives.

How do we evaluate the entirety of the whole child? How do we help our children to develop that robust inner strength? We do that by letting our children have a certain amount of freedom – both freedom of movement and freedom to take reasonable risks while playing in order to become independent, confident human beings. When trusting our children to be able to do and try new things and give them space to build their own trust of themselves, we support the important factors in creating the ‘whole child’ – and a robust inner strength.

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