Children’s play, an essential tool for mental health during development

Play occupies a very important place in a child’s life. For many researchers, in addition to creating knowledge and developing new behaviors, it helps boost emotional well-being. However, in recent decades, children’s living conditions have changed dramatically, particularly through the early introduction of new information technologies, reduced interactions between children of different ages, and increased time spent sitting rather than playing freely outside. A new study by researchers at the University of Cambridge says these moments are real social and emotional moments, as they lead to better mental health as children get older. Specifically, the study was published in the journal Child psychiatry and human development It shows that children who learn to play well with their peers at age three are likely to have better mental health as they grow up.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 1,700 children, collected when they were three and seven years old. It turns out that those who showed better ability to play with their peers at age three showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later. The latter tended to have significantly lower hyperactivity, as parents and teachers reported fewer behavioral and emotional problems, and were less likely to argue with other children. Importantly, this protective association persisted even for children who are particularly at risk for mental health problems or those with additional risk factors such as poverty and the mother’s severe psychological distress during or immediately after pregnancy. Based on this finding, the researchers recommend that children at risk for poor mental health have priority access to playgroups led by early childhood professionals to help them protect themselves from future mental health problems.

Note: Quality takes precedence over quantity

How can this beneficial effect be explained? Researchers hypothesize that by playing with others, young children learn the skills needed to form strong friendships as they grow and start school. Therefore, even if they are at risk of poor mental health, these friendship networks will allow them to cope. ” What matters is quality, not quantity. Games with peers that encourage children to cooperate, for example, or activities that encourage participation, will have positive effects. “By peer-to-peer games, the science team means imaginative imaginative play, goal-directed activities (such as building a tower of blocks) and cooperative games such as hide-and-seek. Peer-to-peer play ability is defined as the ability of a child to The researchers calculated the strength of the association between this scale and reported symptoms of potential mental health problems, hyperactivity, behavior and emotional problems, at age seven.

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In general, children who had a higher ability to play with peers at age three consistently showed fewer signs of mental health problems at age seven. For each unit increase in ability to play with peers at age three, children’s measured score decreased for hyperactivity problems at age seven by 8.4%, behavioral problems by 8%, emotional problems by 9.8% and problems with other children by 14%. “ It is likely that the consistent link between peer play and mental health exists because playing with others promotes the development of emotional self-control and social-cognitive skills, such as the ability to understand and respond to other people’s feelings. ‘, add researchers who also believe that ‘these are essential ingredients for building stable, mutual friendships. This finding is in line with other studies that have already shown that the better a person’s social relationships, the better their mental health.

But for children, this characteristic is more important because strong social bonds create a virtuous circle, as they generally lead to more opportunities for peer-to-peer play. This is why the researchers suggest that assessing children’s access to play with other children at an early age could be used to screen those at risk for future mental health problems. “ We can focus more on giving children better opportunities to play with their peers. There are already some great initiatives, led by childcare professionals. Our findings show how important their work is, especially since other risk factors that put children’s mental health at risk can often be due to circumstances beyond their parents’ control.. The scientific team concludes. Ensuring that these playtimes are taken seriously is more important than ever right now, given that social interactions have been extremely limited during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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