Preschoolers who learn to play well with others have better mental health as they age, according to a recent study. The research looked at “peer play ability,” an indicator of how well kids play with each other.
The report provides the first clear evidence that peer play ability “has a protective effect on mental health,” the authors said in a statement. The study appeared in Child Psychiatry and Human Development.
Evaluating the impacts of play
The data came from nearly 1,676 Australian children born in 2003 and 2004 who were monitored at 3 and 7 years old. The researchers assessed various types of play, including games, pretend play, goal-directed activities and collaborative games.
Three-year-olds who had better peer play ability consistently had fewer signs of poor mental health when they were 7 years old. That is, their parents and teachers reported fewer emotional issues and conduct problems, they were less likely to get into spats with other kids, and they had lower hyperactivity.
For every unit increase in peer play ability at age 3, their measured score at age 7 for:
- Hyperactivity problems decreased by 8.4%
- Conduct problems went down by 8%
- Emotional problems declined by 9.8%
- Peer problems went down by 14%
The team looked at two traits linked to poor mental health: high reactivity, which refers to children who were easily upset and difficult to soothe as babies; and low persistence, which refers to those who struggle to persevere during a challenging task.
Even when the researchers honed in on more subgroups—kids experiencing poverty, or born to mothers who had distress during or immediately after pregnancy—the children who played well early on had better outcomes.
How play helps
“We think this connection exists because through playing with others, children acquire the skills to build strong friendships as they get older and start school. Even if they are at risk of poor mental health, those friendship networks will often get them through,” Jenny Gibson, PhD, an associate professor in the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Center at University of Cambridge, said in a statement.
The quality, not quantity, is what matters, notes Vicky Yiran Zhao, a PhD student and co-author. “Games with peers that encourage children to collaborate, for example, or activities that promote sharing, will have positive knock-on benefits,” Zhao says.
Why is play so beneficial for mental health? The authors say playing with others encourages self-control and socio-cognitive skills, like being able to understand and respond to other people’s feelings—the basics of cultivating solid relationships.
“Children who are more skilled with perspective-taking, self-regulation, and interpersonal problem-solving would certainly be less impacted by momentary challenges and more likely to have successful play, which in turn increases both their opportunities and potential attractiveness to play partners,” Andrew R. Kahn, PsyD, a clinical psychologist from Maine and expert at understood.org who specializes in treating children and was not involved in the research, tells Motherly.
“The state of the world over the past two years has reaffirmed how vital providing opportunities for consistent socialization is for preschoolers,” notes Shari D. Cameron, head of school of the lower school campus at BASIS Independent in Brooklyn.
Some kindergarten and first-grade students [who were largely locked down as preschoolers] are seeking outside support for social and emotional skills typically acquired in preschool group settings,” she tells Motherly.
Fostering play opportunities
The researchers say that evaluating a child’s peer play at an early age could be a screening tool. Giving at-risk kids access to high-quality peer play could be a way to lower the risk for future mental health problems, they added.
Different play situations offer different benefits to children, says Christie Melonson, LPC, a Texas-based counselor.
Kids who are engaged regularly with the same group of kids can build longer-lasting relationships with the other children and to learn deeper levels of emotion regulation along with problem-solving, she explains.
“When there are repetitive activities involved, a child learns to work with others and to work through dilemmas, establish routines, engage in ongoing communication and dialogue, and gets a feel for rules in the group,” Melonson says. “Children can also develop a sense of identity as being part of a group as they get a chance to recognize their personal strengths and preferences in relation to others and to learn from the other personalities, communication styles, languages, and ways of thinking presented in the ongoing group play setting.”
That’s not to say that taking your child to the park, where they meet a new friend spontaneously, can’t be just as beneficial.
“There are still opportunities for play in the sense of getting to know the other child and experimenting with their individual role during play,” Melonson explains. “There may be opportunities for language exchange and new skillset development through interacting with a child on a one-time basis.”
Setting up time for your child to play with others, especially if they aren’t regularly around other kids, is important. But don’t drive yourself bananas doing it, adds Aaron Jeckell, MD, a child psychiatrist from Florida with Broward Health.
“It is worth stressing that this study does not indicate that an absence of these play opportunities means that your child will experience mental health struggles later on in life,” Dr. Jeckell tells Motherly.
“Parents should not feel bad if circumstances interfere with opportunities for their children to play,” Jeckell says. “We are all human, and doing the best you can for your kids with the resources you have available is often exactly what your kids will benefit from the most.”
Also, remember that one child may not be ready for the type of activity that another takes interest in because kids reach milestones at different times.
“Parents should provide ample opportunities for their children to play with other kids in a supervised and safe way, letting their own interests drive their interactions, in a variety of stimulating settings,” he says. “Simply put, let your kids play.”
Aaron Jeckell, MD, is a child psychiatrist from Florida
Christie Melonson, LPC, is a Texas-based counselor
Shari D. Cameron is head of school of the lower school campus at BASIS Independent in Brooklyn
Zhao YV, Gibson JL. Evidence for Protective Effects of Peer Play in the Early Years: Better Peer Play Ability at Age 3 Years Predicts Lower Risks of Externalising and Internalising Problems at Age 7 Years in a Longitudinal Cohort Analysis. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev (2022). doi:10.1007/s10578-022-01368-x