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Play improves children's mental health

Lead researcher

Completed project

Zhao, Y. V., & Gibson, J. L. (2022). 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 & Human Development.

This study has been widely reported by many major media outlets, including the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, US news & World Report etc. Please refer to my home page for more information.

Spark: Every child plays. Play is natural in childhood. However, we are currently experiencing a global play crisis. Throughout the COVID pandemic, we have witnessed a deterioration in children's mental health. One reason that underlies this phenomenon is the reduction in play opportunities with peers. 

Gap in research: Biopsychosocial model of children's mental health often suggests the importance of genetics, environmental factors, and the gene*environment interactions. Although key to children's social lives, the influence of peers has always been underrated. We argue that peer play is one of the very first opportunities offered to children in their early lives to develop social skills with people outside their family. It is likely that these skills developed via peer play could protect children from experiencing mental health challenges in the long run. 

Research context: We examined N=1500+ children in the Australian context. We identified children at higher risks of mental health problems at age 7, i.e. those who exhibited frustrations more often or get frustrated easily at age 3; those who struggled to pay attention and continue what they set out to do. We also further examined whether peer play had a protective role for these subgroups. 

Research findings: 

  • Children who were good at peer play at age 3 faced lower risks of hyperactivity, conduct problems, emotional problems and peer problems at age 7, while controlling known influential factors of mental health, such as socioeconomic status and maternal psychological distress.

  • Better peer play ability at age 3 could also protect children who get frustrated easily from risks of hyperactivity at age 7. 

  • Better peer play ability at age 3 could also protect children who get distracted easily from risks of hyperactivity, emotional and peer problems at age 7. 

Take-home message: our study hold significant implications for both policy and practice. For policy, we argue that play should be highly encouraged in early years and play time should not be reduced. For practice, peer play, such as goal-directed peer play and peer pretend play, should be encouraged in early childhood education centres. Peer play can also be integrated into intervention programmes to support children at higher risks of long-term mental health problems. In addition, struggling with peer play in early years can be an indicator for long-term mental health problems, thus acting as a quick and low-cost screening tool for further assessments.

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