Previous research has found that unstructured playtime is an important factor in a child's learning, social development and health. "Free play," as researchers call it, has been shown to benefit youngsters by helping them cope with chronic health conditions or illnesses and manage stress.
But these days many children are spending more time involved in academic or adult-directed activities and less time engaged in free play than previous generations. As a result, children today may have an increased risk for anxiety, depression and problems of attention and self control, writes Brown university pediatrician Esther Entin, MD, in an Atlantic blog post today.
In the post, Entin discuses findings (.pdf) published in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Play detailing the decline of children's play time and how this lack of play affects emotional development. She writes:
As children negotiate both their physical and social environments through play, they can gain a sense of mastery over their world, [study author Peter Gray, PhD,] contends. It is this aspect of play that offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect children from anxiety and depression.
"Children who do not have the opportunity to control their own actions, to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play grow up feeling that they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others...."
Anxiety and depression often occur when an individual feels a lack of control over his or her own life. "Those who believe that they master their own fate are much less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control." Gray believes that the loss of playtime lessons about one's ability to exert control over some life circumstances set the scene for anxiety and depression.