Children who learn to behave well with others in preschool age enjoy better mental health as they get older, new research shows. The finding provides the first clear evidence that “peer play skills,” the ability to play successfully with other children, have a protective effect on mental health.
Researchers at Cambridge University looked at data from nearly 1,700 children collected when they were between three and seven years old. Those who had a better ability to play equals at the age of three showed less signs of poor mental health four years later. They tended to be less hyperactive, parents and teachers reported less behavior and emotional problems, and were less likely to engage in struggles or disagreements with other children.
Importantly, this link was generally true even when the researchers focused on subgroups of children at risk for mental health problems. It was also applied when other mental health risk factors were taken into account, such as poverty levels or cases where the mother had severe psychological distress during or immediately during pregnancy.
The findings suggest that giving young children who may be vulnerable to mental health problems a good chance of playing with friends – such as a toy library run by first-year specialists – can be a significant long-term benefit. mental health.
Dr. Jenny Gibson of the Center for Play, Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL), Cambridge University School of Education, said: and at the risk of poor mental health, they often get these networks of friendships. ”
Vicky Yiran Zhao, a PhD student at PEDAL and lead author of the study, added: “The best thing is the quality of play, rather than quantity.
Researchers used data from 1,676 children in the Growing up in Australia study, which tracks the development of Australian-born children from March 2003 to February 2004. The record provided by the parents and caregivers includes how the child behaved. different situations at the age of three. This included different types of games between equals, including simple games; an imaginary game; goal-oriented activities (e.g., building a tower from blocks); and collaborative games like hiding.
These peer-to-peer play indicators were used to create a measure of “peer playability,” which is the child’s underlying ability to play playfully with peers. The researchers calculated the strength of the relationship between the measure and reported symptoms of possible mental health problems – hyperactivity, and behavioral, emotional, and peer problems – at age seven.
The study then examined two subgroups of the overall cohort. These were children of high “reactivity” (children who were very easily upset and difficult to calm down in childhood), and those with low “sustainability” (children who struggled to cope with difficult tasks). Both of these traits are associated with poor mental health outcomes.
Across the data set, children with a higher play-ability score at the age of three were consistently less likely to show signs of mental health difficulties at the age of seven. For each increase in the ability to play with peers at the age of three, the measured score for hyperactivity problems at the age of seven fell by 8.4%, behavioral problems by 8%, emotional problems by 9.8%, and peer problems by 14%. , such as the level of poverty and maternal distress, and whether or not there were many opportunities to play with siblings and parents.
The impact was also noticeable among risk groups. In particular, among the 270 children in the “low-endurance” category, those who were better at playing with the same age at three years were consistently lower in hyperactivity, and less so at the age of seven with less emotional and equal problems. This may be because peer play often forces children to solve problems and face unexpected challenges, and therefore leads to low duration.
The benefits of peer play were weaker for the highly reactive subgroup, probably because these children are often nervous and anxious and less likely to play with others. Even among this group, however, better play between equals at age three was associated with lower hyperactivity at age seven.
The consistent link between peer play and mental health is probably because playing with others helps to develop emotional self-control and sociocognitive skills, such as the ability to understand and respond to other people’s feelings. These are fundamental to building stable mutual friendships. There is already good evidence that the better a person’s social connections, the better their mental health. For children, more social connections also create a virtuous circle, which usually leads to more opportunities for peer play.
Researchers suggest that assessing children’s access to play at a young age could be used to examine those who may be at risk for future mental health problems. Providing access to environments that promote high-quality play for families at risk, such as a playroom or small group care with professional child caregivers, is said to be an easily accessible and low-cost way. after mental health problems.
“The current standard offer is to put parents in a parenting course,” Gibson said. “We could focus much more on providing better opportunities for children to meet and play with their peers. There are already wonderful initiatives across the country aimed at professionals who provide this service at a very high level. Our findings show how crucial it is. that other risk factors that are at risk may often be beyond parental control. “