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Independent play is good for children’s mental health

Since anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teenagers in the United States are currently at an all-time high, in 2021 child and adolescent mental health was declared a national emergency. Although many possible causes are thought to contribute to this worrisome situation, a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics has argued that a decades-long decline in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in various activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults may have been a critical factor in the current mental health crisis, leading to record levels of anxiety, depression, and even suicide among young people.

“Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school,” said study co-author David Bjorklund, a professor of Psychology at the Florida Atlantic University (FAU). 

“But 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. They need to feel they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the world of school.”

Moreover, children’s freedom to engage in activities that involve a certain degree of risk and personal responsibility (such as climbing trees), which can help protect children from developing phobias and reduces future anxiety by boosting self-confidence in dealing with possible emergencies, has also declined over the past few decades, contributing to the ongoing mental health problems today’s children face.

According to the experts, the increased school time and pressure to achieve may have impacted children’s mental health not only by detracting from time and opportunities to engage in independent activities, but also due to fear of insufficient achievement and academic failure.

To address these issues, adults’ concern for children’s safety has to be tempered by recognizing that, as children grow, they need increasing opportunities to manage their own activities independently.

“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. 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,” Bjorklund concluded.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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