Statistics show that more children than ever are experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Among adolescents and teens, the rates of depression and anxiety have been steadily increasing for decades and the most recent CDC data shows a similar trend in children starting as young as age four. While most of us may have a pretty good idea of some of the causes, we need to know what is affecting our children so negatively. So, we can change it.
Several theories have been proposed. One potential cause that’s gaining a lot of traction lately is the connection between diminished rates of free play and peaking rates of childhood mental illness. As school recess shrinks and screen time grows, the amount of free play has declined. Child development and behavioral experts are encouraging parents and educators to prioritize undirected playtime.
Author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Boston College says:
“Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”
What Exactly Is Free Play?
Free play encompasses all unstructured, child-led, independent play. It often takes place outdoors and allows children to make their own decisions and pursue what’s meaningful to them. Gray defines free play as play a child undertakes themselves which is self-directed and an end in itself, as opposed to being part of some organized activity. According to him, this kind of unstructured, freely-chosen play is a testing ground for life. It provides critical life experiences without which young children cannot develop into confident and competent adults.
According to the article, All Work and No Play:
Since the late 1970’s, children have lost 12 hours/week in free time, a 25 percent decrease in play and 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities.”
Research has linked free play with healthy physical, mental, and social development for children. In fact, some studies have specifically demonstrated that the right kind of play can decrease the likelihood of future mental illness.
Play Helps Kids Cope With Trauma
When children experience emotional trauma, short and long term impact on their mental health can be serious and significant. Research on the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has shown that trauma can harm a child’s developing brain and body so profoundly that the effects can be seen decades later. ACEs often show up in adults as a chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, and violence.
ACEs can literally change a child’s physical brain. Trauma can alter a child’s stress responses making them more vulnerable to mental illness and making it more difficult for them to control, identify, and talk about their emotions. They may feel a loss of identity, called depersonalization, and may find it difficult to connect with others.
Roleplay is often used in a therapeutic setting to help children process complex trauma and emotions in a healthy and productive way. This can also happen naturally during free play. Researchers have observed that fantasy play encourages cognitive processes that help children cope with emotions and traumatic experiences. In free play, children can act out big feelings and upsetting situations and experience healthy empathy toward others.
Play Reduces Anxiety
Anxiety is common in children. Childhood is filled with many firsts, and our brains are wired to be anxious about anything unfamiliar and uncertain. You also learn anxiety from your environment. So, some kids have a higher comfort level with trying new things than others.
While normal childhood fears can typically be diminished with emotional support and life experience, more serious anxiety and phobias can show up as behavioral issues, such as outbursts, meltdowns, and defiant avoidance behavior. These tendencies can lead to social issues that keep a child from enjoying positive and developmentally beneficial experiences.
Part of healthy childhood development includes taking age-appropriate, low-stakes risks which make kids feel more comfortable, in control of themselves, and self-assured. This most often happens in free play during self-led experiences, where children are in control. Kids deprived of the opportunity for this kind of play may become overly risk-averse and fearful. This mindset can persist in the adult years and have a serious impact on their well-being and lifestyle as anxiety.
Additionally, the “imaginary friends” that kids come up with during free play sessions are often psychological coping tools of their own creation. These friends can help reduce feelings of anxiety and fear by providing a supportive imagined companion. Research discovered that kids — especially boys —may feel less fear and anxiety during play after imaginary friends were introduced.
Play Can Minimize ADHD Symptoms
From 1996 to 2008, the rate of ADHD medication prescribed to children under age 16 increased a staggering 842 percent. The long-term impact of these medications on developing human brains isn’t clear yet — making this figure concerning. Some research has suggested that poor opportunities for free play are connected to this spike in diagnoses.
When children engage in self-led free play, it often gravitates naturally to outdoor spaces. Research has correlated time spent in green spaces with a reduction in ADHD symptoms, along with a greater sense of self-discipline and ability to moderate stress. Children who spent time in green spaces were also able to more easily form supportive social groups. All of these components play a positive part in childhood mental health and development.
The link between ADHD symptoms and outdoor play is significant enough that some researchers have suggested the use of green spaces as a therapeutic setting for helping to treat ADHD symptoms. Such a non-invasive, non-chemical, and low or no-cost option may be better for children and families than prescription alternatives.
Play Can Help Depression
Childhood depression can sometimes be tricky to identify because growing up typically includes emotional instability, tiredness, avoidance, crankiness, and sadness. Any young person exhibiting these behaviors may simply be experiencing the normal ups and downs of childhood. However, when a child’s behavior becomes persistently withdrawn, irritable, or sensitive, or eating, sleeping, or scholastic patterns change, depression may be the cause.
Research has linked being sedentary with negative mental health outcomes for children (and adults). Unfortunately, school, overscheduling, and screen time means that many kids are spending most of the day seated. Some studies have correlated the kind of intense physical activity that can happen during free play with a reduction in depression symptoms as well as a boost in self-esteem and reduced anxiety. (It works for adults too.)
While there may not be a direct causal relationship – yet – the scientific evidence is growing. To restore childhood resilience and boost the mental wellbeing of our kids, it is important that we prioritize free play. This means not seeing play as an optional extra but as a vital part of children’s healthy development.
Neve Spicer is a mother of three, writer, and veteran primary school teacher. Because of her interest in child-development research and love of words, she has written for government, educational, and charity publications. Neve works hard to amplify the needs of children, especially when it comes to prioritizing play.