The Intersection of Play and Mental Health

This article was created by Kallie Crouch, our 2021 Spring Semester intern from the Front Street Writers program at the TBAISD Career-Tech Center.

Click on the underlined words for hyperlinks to other sources, or check out the list of resources at the end of the article!

The implications of playing often and playing well have benefits on children and their mental health that begin in youth and extend into adulthood. However, as children become more involved in extracurricular activities designed to ensure academic success, playtime is reduced, and children get less time to do the things they love. This reduction of playtime and introduction of stressors places children in a unique situation in which proper brain development is put at risk. 

 

The relationship between play and stress varies from case to case. In some situations, a child’s desire to play is unstoppable. In others, the urge to play decreases—specifically, in those situations in which something called toxic stress is present. 

 

Children experience toxic stress when they face long-term adversity without proper guidance or support from an adult. This can take the form of physical or emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and more. The Center on the Developing Child notes that when children experience this level of stress for a prolonged period of time, the development of their brain and other organ systems can be disrupted. 

 

So, what exactly does play have to do with mental health? Well, play is a rewarding activity, and children report being happier after free and unstructured play. Together, the unlimited bounds of play and its challenges help children develop resilience, understand their emotions, become more aware of their body, and better cope with adversity and stress. Additional benefits of unstructured playtime include the formation of healthy relationships, the improvement of concentration, and the development of emotion regulation. 

 

Play also serves as the body’s way of regulating the stress response. Though experts agree that the stress response can be helpful in small amounts, stress becomes dangerous when those manageable amounts aren’t relived. With that in mind, it’s important for parents and caregivers to spend time playing with their children to enforce the habit of finding time to have fun. When they understand the activities that help them relax and bring joy when they’re young, it is much easier for children make time for those things when they’re older. 

 

Incorporating play into stressful situations can also help children better regulate their emotions. When children have the opportunity to play with unfamiliar individuals before entering a stressful situation, these children experience less stress than those who enter the environment without having the opportunity to play. Additionally, a few minutes of playful interaction with friends and strangers alike can allow children to form more meaningful and empathetic connections with others.

 

Play, at its heart, is important to the developing minds and bodies of children, but that’s not the end of its benefits. Playing is also necessary to build strong, meaningful connections between people, relieve stress, and foster an environment where children feel safe sharing their feelings with others. Children who identify the things they find pleasure in while young can turn to those activities when they are stressed or feeling sad as adults. 

 

In addition to promoting free and unstructured play, PoWeR! Book Bags wants to inform people about the importance of children having a positive relationship with mental health, which begins in childhood play. Keep reading to access more resources on the intersection of play and mental health.

Resources for the Intersection of Play and Mental Health

Below, you’ll find articles about the intersection between mental health and play. Keep reading to learn just how important play is to the mental health of children, straight from scholars and researchers themselves. 

 

Playtime May Bolster Kids’ Mental Health - Playtime May Bolster Kids' Mental Health - The Atlantic

This article, by Angela Lashbrook, is about a paper released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018. Among other things, the article discusses children in the United States being saddled with responsibilities that encroach on playtime, which is a critical aspect of childhood development. 

 

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children - The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children | American Academy of Pediatrics (aappublications.org) 

This paper, featured in the American Academy of Pediatrics, drives home the importance of play to children in both visible (such as its impact on interactions with others) and more hidden (such as its impact on cognitive development) ways. The piece also explores the relationship between stress and play and how play might be beneficial in teaching children how to manage their stress. 

 

Five Key Findings on Play - play_5reasons_infographic_e.pdf (cpha.ca)

This information presented by the Canadian Public Health Association presents five key benefits of playing, one of which is that play is a way to promote positive feelings. 

 

The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders  - The Decline of Play and Rise in Children's Mental Disorders | Psychology Today

This article, featured in Psychology Today, explores the causes of an increase of mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, in America’s youth. One of these reasons is a decline in available time for free play, which is directly tied to a lack of a sense of control and intrinsic motivation. 


Free Play and Children’s Mental Health - Free play and children's mental health - The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health

In this article from The Lancet, health officials in the UK discuss the lack of time children have to engage in free, unstructured play. The result: an increase in childhood depression and anxiety.

 

What Every Child Needs For Good Mental Health - What Every Child Needs For Good Mental Health | Mental Health America (mhanational.org) 

This resource, provided by Mental Health America, is a complete look into the things necessary for a child to be physically and mentally healthy. One of those things is play. This important activity should be fostered by encouraging kids to play by themselves, ensuring that they participate in social play, and promoting parental involvement in that play as well. 

 

LEGO Play Well Report - lego-play-well-report-2018.pdf (legofoundation.com)

The LEGO Play Well Report looks into play in different places of the world. It includes information about the benefits of play for children, parents, and family life; preferred types of play; barriers to play; ways to learn through play; and how playing helps children develop the skills they need for the future. 

 

Center on the Developing Child - Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

The Center on the Developing Child is a resource available for people who wish to understand the developing child. On their page, you can find information about the science behind development, innovation in action, and learning communities working to foster change. The information is presented in easy-to-read and understandable language that allows parents, educators, or anyone else who is curious to digest the information without having a background in science.