How Playing Can Build Strong Mental Health

“Skills can be developed through play.”

One guess.  Where is this quote from?  It’s not from a playground company, sportswear company or even a community rec centre.

If you guessed BC’s revised curriculum you’d be correct!

It’s a critical pillar of the learning paradigm for primary students within our current BC Curriculum.  Play is recognized as a critical mode of learning for developing key skills — things like problem solving, collaboration, listening, teamwork, empathy and understanding.  These things are essential if we’re hoping to help build our children’s opportunities for success as they enter into an increasingly complex world of inter-relationships.

children playing 2

Playing = Learning

The importance of play in positive mental health can also not be overstated.

Let me explain …

A lot has been written lately about the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in our society — including among our children.  Here’s an example from a researcher:

“Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago.”

Dr. Peter Gray, Boston College researcher (2010)

Yes, it’s from the States, but is just as applicable north of the 49th parallel.

There are lots of hypotheses floating around about why depression and anxiety might be increasing.  Here are a few of them:

  • Too much screen time such as TV, computers and phones;
  • Absentee or helicopter parenting;
  • Increasing & changing academic requirements for post-secondary entrance;
  • The realities of two income families and the effects of this on children;
  • The new normal of social-media influences

… and there are others.

As with most societal problems, the reasons for them are usually complex and include a variety of potential reasons or influences.

Since societal problems are complex their solutions will be as well.

However, my goal here today is not to engage in a debate over which influence or reason may be the biggest contributor to a higher rate of childhood anxiety, but instead to discuss the positive contribution that PLAY has been shown to have on strong mental health.

Researchers like Dr. Gray, have stated that both anxiety and depression are strongly linked to whether a person feels like they have control over their lives.

Lack of personal self-control =  Increased anxiety and depression.

children playing

Playing = Problem Solving

When children have the opportunity for free play (at home or at school) they develop a whole set of skills including the ability to solve their own problems, control their own immediate decisions, develop their own interests, and become competent in any number of activities.  In essence, they learn to develop personal control over their lives.  When they are part of the solution in moving social situations forward they develop an inner confidence that helps to build their personal resilience.

People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. 

Dr. Peter Gray

Dr . Gray also points out that, “Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades.”  This, I believe, can lead to children being less able to solve their own problems — in effect, taking the control for these solutions away from them and into the hands of the adults around them.

We need to remind ourselves that empowering our children means providing them with the opportunities to build their own problem-solving skills.

In school, especially at the younger grades, educators see play as a critically important part of doing just that.  Recess and lunch are two easily accessible times to build those necessary life-solving skills.  But, inside our classrooms teachers are also strategically using play as both a motivator and important learning experience.

In summary, by allowing our children to have some unstructured play experiences — both on the gravel fields at recess  but also at home and in their communities — we are building stronger, more capable children.  When we overly structure a child’s day we take away opportunities for personal growth and success in dealing with complex life situations.

dogs playing

Playing = Positive Mental Health

And while I don’t suppose for a minute that simply allowing children time to play in unstructured environments will cause a significant drop in the rates of anxiety and depression, I DO believe that it can only help them develop the skills that help to prevent those same mental health challenges.

So, get outside and play in the fields, play on the playground and play in the forests.  It’s good for our bodies and, equally as important, it’s good for our mental health.



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