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Routines & Anxiety

Managing Anxiety through Structure and Play

How can we ease children's anxiety and help them regain a sense of control over their environment?

Routine and a sense of control over one's environment are important for everyone but especially children. For both adults and children, there is a clear link between uncertainty about being able to control their environment and elevated anxiety (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998). Of course, most of what’s happening is out of our (very well washed) hands. But if we establish routines and do what we can to make our home environment safe, then we may alleviate some of the anxiety that stems from a lack of control.

Children often need a sense of routine and knowledge regarding plans to feel comfortable and emotionally regulated (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998). Establishing a consistent morning routine and a daily schedule can help children understand what to expect on a day to day basis. The level of detail can vary to fit what works for your family, but the overall goal is to establish a predictable structure for each day. For younger kids, it may be helpful to print or draw pictures of each step of the routine. When a routine needs to be changed, then it can be helpful to talk with children about why the change was made and what they can expect.

On average, children who did more chores in kindergarten were happier, kinder, had stronger friendships, and performed better academically in third grade.

A team of researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of nearly 10,000 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten (ECLS-K). They found that how often kindergarteners did chores was linked to their social and academic development in third grade (White et al., 2019).

Benefits of Chores

Teach them about your job by giving them small tasks to help you. 


Delegate chores to help children regain a sense of control and feel they are contributing to their family’s well-being. 


Brainstorming a list of chores as a family may help kids feel more invested and in control, and therefore more willing to help.

Tips for Chores

Unstructured time

Jane Barker and her colleagues from the University of Colorado Boulder surveyed a socioeconomically diverse sample of parents of children ages 6 to 7 to ask them about how their children spent their time. Activities like chores and schoolwork were categorized as structured. Unstructured time included child-directed activities like free play, practicing an instrument or another skill (without adult prompting or supervision), reading, and screen time. The researchers tested children’s executive functioning. They found that children who spent more time in unstructured activities had stronger self-directed executive functioning. They theorized that this may have been because when children engage in self-directed activities, then they have to rely on their own regulatory abilities rather than on cues from an adult.

Including extended blocks of unstructured time in the routine may help children develop their self-directed executive functioning and manage their anxiety.

When children choose how to spend their time, they rely on their own self regulatory skills. 

Longer periods of unstructured time for children to play may also be necessary as they grapple with their anxiety. Pretend play is considered a safe arena for children to “miniaturize” their real world experiences. In their imagined world, they can experience, express, and regulate negative emotions that they may struggle to manage in real life. Gradually, as they grapple with anxiety, anger, and distress during play, their ability to manage these emotions transfers to their lives (Singer, 1995).


Research with elementary school aged children suggests that when children are anxious, they play differently. Anxious children tend to express less emotion during play and their play tends to be less organized. However, the researchers observed that over longer periods of play time, anxious children’s play gradually became more organized (Christian, Russ, & Short, 2011).

Researchers use a wide range of activities to measure different aspects of children’s executive functioning. They often use a set of activities to break down executive functioning into its component skills including working memory, verbal fluency, children’s ability to hold back a response, delayed gratification, among others. One way Barker and her colleagues measured “verbal fluency” was by playing a word association game. They said, “We’re going to play a game where we think of lots and lots of words. I bet you’re really good at thinking of words, aren’t you? I’ll tell you what kinds of words to think of, and every time you tell me one, I’ll put a pom-pom in your cup. Let’s see how many pom-poms you can get before all the sand is gone (experimenter pointed to a 1-min sand timer children could use to estimate how much time was left). I’ll bet you can get a lot! And when we are all done thinking of words, you can trade the pom-poms for a prize.”

Wondering how executive function is tested?


Routines and schedules can help children regulate their emotions because they will know what to expect each day (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998).

Doing chores in early childhood is linked to greater happiness, kindness, stronger friendships, and better academic performance in third grade (White et al., 2019).

Unstructured time is linked to stronger self-directed executive functioning (Barker et al., 2014).


Pretend play is considered a safe arena for children to “miniaturize” their real world experiences and grapple with negative emotions. Spending extended, uninterrupted periods engaged in free play, may help anxious children work out their emotions (Christian, Russ, & Short, 2011).


Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 593.

Chorpita, B. F., & Barlow, D. H. (1998). The development of anxiety: The role of control in the early environment. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 3–21.

Christian, K. M., Russ, S., & Short, E. J. (2011). Pretend play processes and anxiety: Considerations for the play therapist. International Journal of Play Therapy, 20(4), 179-192.

Singer, J. L. (1995). Imaginative play in childhood: Precursor of subjunctive thoughts, daydreaming, and adult pretending games. In A. Pellegrini (Ed.), The future of play theory (pp. 187–219). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

White, E. M., DeBoer, M. D., & Scharf, R. J. (2019). Associations between household chores and childhood self-competency. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 40, 176-182.

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