Play and Mental Health
Emerging evidence about teens
I have written a lot about a play-based approach to exercise. This a big topic with many different dimensions, and in fact I wrote a whole book about it.
In one chapter I touched briefly on the mental health benefits of play for growing kids. Here’s a post with a relevant excerpt, which explains why risky activities like climbing trees and roughhousing can build confidence and resilience, and why helicopter parenting and “safetyism” can unintentionally make kids more fragile and subject to anxiety.
Since I wrote the book, new evidence has emerged suggesting that kids today have higher levels of anxiety and depression than past generations. Experts have identified social media and smartphones as a good explanations, and others have pointed to a related concern: declining levels of play.
This post highlights some of this evidence and argument presented by experts like Peter Gray, John Haidt and Jean Twenge. It also provides some resources and links where you can learn more. The information will be interesting for parents, but there are also some takeaways for adults. I’ll start with a quick description of what play means in the context of exercise (you can skip that if you already know), and then move on to the evidence that lack of play may explain declining levels of mental health in teenagers.
Play and exercise
There are many different definitions of play in the scientific literature, but experts generally define play as an activity involving intrinsic motivation, exploration, creativity, and freedom from stress and outside control. For me, play is best understood as the rough opposite of “work.” Check the picture below for some distinctions.
According to this list, exercise is more playful if it is loosely structured and intrinsically motivated, and more like work if it is highly structured and done only to achieve some external goal like looking better in a bathing suit.
Most of the exercise we do probably involves elements of both work and play. Going for a hike is closer to the play end of the spectrum, while walking for an hour on a stair master is more like work. I think “working” at fitness is valuable, but that most of us are not playing enough.
Too much work will reduce the motivation to exercise, increase stress and risk of injury or burnout, decrease the variability that creates real world function, and prevent the exploration that may develop new capacities. Plus it will make you a dull boy or girl.
For kids, play is even more important, because it is the natural plan for turning them into independent adults. All intelligent animals have an innate desire to play, because it teaches the physical, emotional and social skills necessary for survival. Peter Gray is one of the leading experts on this subject. He notes that for humans:
Free play and exploration are, historically, 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.
Gray emphasizes that play implies that adults have minimal control over the process:
A review of 12 studies in which young children were interviewed about what is or isn’t play concluded that children understood play to be an activity “that took place with other children with little or no involvement from adults.” In one study, for example, kindergarteners who were shown pictures of children engaged in activities that looked fun generally identified the activity as play only if no adult appeared in the picture. They apparently assumed that if an adult was present, the adult was controlling the activity, so it wasn’t play.
Observational studies in natural settings have documented the inhibiting affect of adult presence on children’s play. In one study, researchers observed parks in North Carolina, and found that kids played with more frequency and vigor when adults were not present. This fits with my own observations of the way kids move in structured versus unstructured environments. In a class where they are being told exactly what to do and how to move, they spend most of their time standing in line, listening to instructions. When they are free to make up their own games in rules, they move with far more frequency, intensity, and variability.
The amount of time kids spend playing has been steadily declining over the decades. This is due to several factors:
increased school time, decreased recess, and more homework;
increased fears that children are in danger if not constantly guarded; and
increased time spent in adult-controlled activities like sports practices, music lessons or highly structured “play dates.”
According to Gray, this is a very concerning trend. Here's a clear summary of his thesis from a 2010 study called The Decline of Play and Rise in Children's Mental Disorders:
By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
Gray recently published an updated study summarizing the evidence in support of this claim. My review of this paper is that it shows convincing evidence of reduced play, as well as increased anxiety and depression in adolescents. Establishing a causal relationship between these trends is of course much more difficult, but the research does suggest some plausible mechanisms. Some of this research is cited in the Gray paper, and also this google doc assembled by the sociologist Jonathan Haidt, who has many excellent books and is also a fan of Gray’s hypothesis. Here are a couple interesting findings:
A longitudinal study finding that free play predicts self-regulation:
Results showed that the more time children spent in unstructured quiet play in the toddler and preschool years, the better their self-regulation abilities at ages 4–5 and 6–7 years, even after controlling for earlier self-regulation abilities and other known predictors.
A 2010 paper noting the decline of risky play and accurately predicting a subsequent rise in anxiety:
Risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously have feared. As the child's coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared…. we may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play.
Of course, these studies alone aren't sufficient to prove anything scientifically. They represent only small fraction of the studies cited in the google doc, which is 70 pages long. A lot of the evidence is confusing, and points in different directions.
For a more skeptical and nuanced perspective on the role of reduced play in the rise of mental health disorders, I would recommend the work Jean Twenge, a researcher and author who has done considerably work documenting changes in mental health across the generations. This can be found in her excellent books iGen and Generations and also her blog here. For example, this post sets out her argument that smartphones are the major culprit in the recent rise in teen anxiety an depression. See point 7 for her slightly skeptical take on the role of less play and independence.
My takeaway is that this is a highly complex topic with many different interpretations. But hopefully this research will start to lend some scientific credibility to what I think is a common sense proposal: kids would be happier and healthier if they spent more time outside with other kids free of parental control, and less time in school or on addictive devices. Put simply, they should be playing more and working less.
Although this subject is mostly relevant to parents of kids, I think there are also some takeaways for adults. Adults are les plastic than kids, but most retain some ability to grow and develop untapped potentials. The fuel for growth must come from some degree of exploration, creativity, and intrinsic motivation. If you want to keep developing, keep playing and having fun with what you are doing. Like many other kinds of health advice, the answers are simple but not easy.
References and resources
Peter Gray’s recent article: Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence
Jon Haidt’s blog
Haidt’s Google doc with research on play and mental health
Haidt’s upcoming book, The Anxious Generation
Jean Twenge’s books: Generations and iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us
Twenge podcast Interview with Ezra Klein
Lenore Skenazy’s website Let Grow
Jeremy Frisch’s Twitter page