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How lack of playtime affects children’s mental health

A new study shows that decline in independent play contributes to record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide

Independent play is important for children's well-being. (Pexels/Lukas)
Independent play is important for children's well-being. (Pexels/Lukas)

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A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, suggests that the increase in mental health disorders among school-aged children and teens is linked to a lack of opportunities for children and teens to play, roam and engage in activities independently, without the “direct oversight and control by adults.”

The research conducted by three prominent researchers specializing in child development shows that parents depriving children of independence contributes to record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people. 

Also read: How early parental interactions impact children's self-worth

David F. Bjorklund, co-author and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, pointed out that parents today frequently hear about dangers that unsupervised children might get caught in and how high achievement in school is crucial. But they rarely come across information about the benefits of independent activity.

“They hear little of the countervailing messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable,” he added.

Among the constraints that affect children’s independent play, increase in school time and pressure to achieve over decades are significant factors. Fear of academic failure, or insufficient achievement is also a direct source of distress.

Adding to the link between play and mental health, a recent study had highlighted how physical activity interventions were associated with significant reductions in depressive symptoms in children and adolescents.

In India, a study conducted among 15 to 17-year-olds in 27 states found that 25.2% of adolescents did not meet moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) guidelines, according to Science Direct. A 2017 study also showed that children in India have fewer opportunities to play outdoors than their parents had as kids, according to a survey in 10 countries which found that over half of children globally play outside for one hour or less each day, as reported by Hindustan Times.

“A major category of independent activity, especially for young children, is play,” said Bjorklund. “Research, as well as everyday observation, indicates that play is a direct source of children’s happiness.”

The study also showed that risky play, such as climbing high into a tree, helps protect children from developing phobias and anxiety by boosting self-confidence to deal with emergencies.  

Also read: How you can help your children read more and read better

“Unlike other crises, such as the COVID epidemic, this decline in independent activity, and hence, mental wellbeing in children has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it,” said Bjorklund. “Moreover, unlike other health crises, this one is not the result of a highly contagious virus, but rather the result of good intentions carried too far – intentions to protect children and provide what many believed to be better (interpreted as more) schooling, both in and out of actual schools.”

 The article concludes that there is a need for increasing opportunities for children to take care of their own activities independently.


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