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The Effects of Play on Childhood Mental Health

Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humour.

Stuart Brown

A survey conducted by Persil found that 74% of children play outside for less than an hour a day. One hour outside for exercise is set out in the UN guidelines as the recommended standard for prisoners,[1] this will have an impact on the ways in which children learn and develop. With over half of mental health problems in adult life (excluding dementia) start by the age of 14 and one in 10 school-aged children (5-16) have a clinically diagnosable mental disorder,[2]it is clear that the mental health of children needs to be at the forefront of our minds when considering their education and day-to-day activities.

The decline of play has been attributed to the rise of depression and anxiety in young children. Free and structured play is where children learn to solve their own problems, develop their interests, and explore their imagination. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recognise exercise as a treatment for a variety of mental health conditions, and that physical activity can help play a role in preventing mental health problems and improve the quality of life for those experiencing them.

Susan Isaacs, the founder of the Department of Child Development at the Institute of Education in London and is an educational psychologist and psychoanalyst. She believed that play was an integral part of a child’s development. Play was a form of self-expression that allowed children to learn and rehearse how to deal with a range of emotions and to communicate their true feelings. She described play as the “breath of life to the child, since it is through play activities that he finds mental ease, and can work upon his wishes, fears and fantasies so as to integrate them into a living personality”. Isaacs was also clear that she believed that play was most beneficial to children when they had the freedom to play on their own terms, in the way that they wanted.

Play has the greatest value for the young child when it is really free and his own

Susan Isaacs

Many psychologists agree with Isaacs that free, unstructured play is incredibly important to the emotional development of children. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, regards play that is independent of direct guidance from adults as the means by which “children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”[3] By reducing freedom to play, Gray believes children are less likely to learn how to take control of their own lives and will feel like they have little autonomy.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression can often occur when an individual feels a lack of control over their own fate and life. Many psychologists believe that unstructured play is a prominent factor in children feeling as though they have “mastery over their own world” [4] and makes them feel as though they have the capacity to achieve and do anything. Peter Gray believes those who feel that they are “victims of circumstance” and do not have control over their own lives are more prone to feelings of anxiety and depression. [5]

A 2011 article from the American Journal of Play has found that “free, unscheduled playtime” has steadily been declining over the past half-century. Playing without freedom may have as many negative consequences as not playing at all. When children are having to stay within a strict boundary set by adults, they may suppress their intrinsic play experience in order to accommodate the adult’s expectations. Children who do not have opportunities to play freely become skilled in conforming behaviour and are not expressing their authentic selves. Penny Wilson of the Play Association Tower Hamlets says that “when you’re playing you’re finding out about who you are.” She also points out that play isn’t just about having a good time, “there is a symbolism to [children’s] play, there’s meaning to it.” [6]

Children spend a majority of their time surrounded by people that they have little choice in associating with (i.e. parents, siblings and classmates), however, this choice is given back to them in play as they can choose who they play with and have the freedom to remove themselves from situations that they are unhappy or uncomfortable in, a skill that can help them to build coping methods they will continue to use throughout their lives. Children can choose to spend time in groups where they feel they belong and with people they can relate to, rather than being limited to people they are sat next to or live with. Children consistently articulate feeling at their happiest when they are playing with their friends than in most other situations. Belonging to a social group is both an emotional and social lesson which is triggered by play. Children who are ‘play-deprived’ lack these skills and will struggle to participate in group activities and settings as an adult.

Play that is somewhat ‘frightening’ to children (e.g. swings, slides and climbing) allows them to put themselves in challenging situations which give them opportunities to learn how to control and cope with feelings of fear and uncertainty. These feelings of uncertainty and fear are often described by those suffering from anxiety disorders. Frightening and challenging games equip children with the emotional intelligence to face and deal with these emotions.

Having the opportunity to engage in free, social play can also decrease the likelihood of social isolation and feelings of loneliness in children. Children learn to be aware of the needs and feelings of their peers and attempt to accommodate them in order to maintain and continue the games and interactions.

The benefits play has to a child’s mental health can also be seen physiologically. As discussed in a previous post, being physically active has huge positive impacts on the sleep of individuals. Physical activity releases endorphins and helps the body produce melatonin which will make children feel sleepy. Getting sufficient sleep is essential to mental well-being. The positive effect is amplified when play is conducted outside as exposure to the sun, triggers the release of serotonin which helps to regulate mood and alleviates depression. Play can also help to improve the efficiency of the immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems, along with reducing the physical effects of stress on the body.

But how can Sovereign help with this?

Sovereign aim to help schools and nurseries across the UK to prevent and improve mental health problems in children by providing them with a range of equipment that encourages children to explore their imagination and push themselves physically.