Young children who play with others their own age have better mental health as they age, according to a new study.
Experts from the University of Cambridge say they have found the first clear evidence that ‘peer play ability’ – the ability to play successfully with other children – has a protective effect on mental health.
The study looked at how well three-year-olds were able to interact with their peers and how this translated to good mental health at age seven.
For the study of 1,676 children, caregivers rated three-year-olds on a three-point scale, with one meaning “doesn’t do it at all”, two meaning “does it, but not well” and three ” does it well”. ”.
Areas examined included children’s ability to take turns, follow simple rule-based games, role-play with other children, and have play goals such as building towers.
Children were also assessed on their ability to stick to tasks, play continuously for more than 10 minutes at a time with their favorite toy, and practice a new skill for 10 minutes or more.
Other data was collected on their reactions and frustrations, including shouting and yelling; having days where they were irritable all day; and things like stomping and twisting when upset.
Parents were also asked how often in the past month their child had had problems playing with other children, if other children did not want to play with them, how often they had been teased and about their ability to keep up with other children.
The results showed that youngsters who had better play ability at age three were less likely to be hyperactive at age seven.
They were also less likely to suffer from behavioral problems (as noted by teachers and parents), had lower levels of emotional problems, and were less likely to fight or argue with other children their age. .
This held true regardless of factors that might influence the results, such as whether or not youngsters had many opportunities to play with their siblings and parents.
The data comes from the Growing up in Australia study, which tracks the development of children born in Australia between March 2003 and February 2004.
The authors said, “Peer play requires participating children to engage in perspective taking and to deploy their theory of mind and emotion recognition skills.
“To successfully engage, a child must notice who is in the mood to play, initiate or respond appropriately to a playful opening, and navigate the often unspoken terms of interaction (for example, not hitting too hard when he plays combat).
“Thus, peer play can provide a highly motivating opportunity to develop these socio-cognitive skills to a higher level which can then be used in new contexts, for example to make new friends, resolve conflicts with classmates, class or maintaining existing friendships.”
Experts also said learning to self-regulate can come through playing with other children, such as learning to deal with difficult emotions, which can help protect mental health.
Dr Jenny Gibson, from the Center for Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: ‘We believe there is this link because by playing with others children gain the skills to form strong friendships as they get older and start school.
“Even though they may have poor mental health, these friendship networks will often get them through.”
She said the study was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic so she could not say how it affected the children.
But she added: “As the pandemic has restricted children’s ability to play with friends, there is cause for concern that many of them may have missed important opportunities to develop. skills that will later support mental health outcomes.
“Given that the link between peer play and mental health has only just been established, we don’t yet know how quickly children will recover from these lost opportunities now that they are socializing more.
“It is clearly very important, however, that as part of the post-pandemic recovery, we give young children in particular time and space to play with others, rather than just focusing on academic skills. .”
Vicky Yiran Zhao, PhD student in PEDAL and first author of the study, added: “What matters is the quality, rather than the quantity, of peer play.
“Peer games that encourage children to collaborate, for example, or activities that promote sharing, will have positive spillovers.”
The study was published in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development.