This article appeared as "Play More" in the Winter 2024 issue of Independent School.
The stats about children’s mental health are sobering. In 2019, before COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a large, demographically balanced survey that revealed 36.7% of teenagers (ages 14–18) had, over the previous year, experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness; 18.8% had seriously considered suicide; 15.7% had made a suicide plan; 8.9% had attempted suicide one or more times; and 2.5% had made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment.
It was reports like this that in 2021 led the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association to declare child and adolescent mental health a “national emergency.” Although the recent news headlines might make it seem like the mental health problem among kids and teens is new, it’s not. Rates of anxiety and depression in children and teens have been trending gradually upward since about 1950.
While children’s mental health has been plummeting over the past several decades, opportunities for them to engage in unsupervised activities outside the home, such as playing, working at a part-time job, or taking public transportation, have also dropped significantly. Free neighborhood play, where children organize their own games, has largely been replaced by adult-directed sports.
Good intentions—by parents, educational systems, and society at large—may have motivated the changes that led children to play less and depend more on the adults around them. As an increased focus on academic performance led to more time in school and doing homework, kids had less recess and outdoor time. The desire to protect children from all possible dangers has led to children’s increased time at home or in adult-run activities. But good intentions have seriously hampered children’s abilities to develop the resources required to face life with equanimity. As the culture has increasingly restricted when and where kids can play and roam on their own, the mental health repercussions have been ugly.
As child independence and free-play advocates who co-founded nonprofit Let Grow, we’ve been tracking the trend of more anxious children and have dedicated our lives to understanding what changes in children’s lives are likely contributing to this. We think we know the answer, or at least a big part of it: Children need more free play and independence. School leaders, who can lead a new generation in a better direction, need to consider the new research on how the decline of these pillars of childhood is contributing to the increase in childhood mental health issues.
Examining the Evidence
In a September 2023 article in The Journal of Pediatrics, “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being,” Gray and co-authors David Lancy, an anthropologist, and David Bjorklund, a developmental psychologist, summarize and document the evidence that a major cause of the decline in children’s mental health has been a gradual but ultimately huge decline in their opportunities to play, explore, and be part of the world without constant adult oversight.
In their article, they examine research that shows a strong internal locus of control—the sense of being in control of one’s life and able to solve problems—protects against anxiety and depression. Other research cited in the article has shown, not surprisingly, that as children have been increasingly denied opportunities to control their own activities, their internal locus of control has weakened.
The Pediatrics article also cites research that shows that psychological health depends on three basic psychological needs—autonomy (freedom to choose one’s own activities), competence (being skilled at what one wants to do), and relatedness (having friends). Especially for young children, free play with other children is the primary means of satisfying these needs.
Correlational studies reveal that children who have more time for independent activity score higher on tests of executive functioning, emotional control, social ability, and self-regulation. These all contribute to psychological well-being.
And other studies have shown that free play is an immediate source of happiness for children. As the late play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith often said in his talks: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” Free play and other independent activities improve mental health through both the immediate pleasure they bring and by building the internal strengths required to face the inevitable challenges of life.
There is a tendency for schools to attack the mental health problem by hiring more counselors or therapists or by adding a social-emotional learning curriculum. These strategies can be valuable, but they tend to contribute to the idea that the source of the problem lies in the children themselves—children who need correcting—rather than in the environment we have provided for them. Another strategy that can help is to focus on and embrace more play-based programming, which can capitalize on children’s natural ability to find joy and strengthen themselves psychologically when provided the opportunities to do so.
One of the Let Grow programs is called Play Club, which helps schools bring the benefits of unstructured play to their before- or after-school programming. Schools that start a Play Club bring students of different ages together for more device-free recess and free-play time in which they have more playmates and activities, including board games, art, and outdoor play to choose from. Adults monitor the children but only serve as “lifeguards,” intervening in real emergencies. They don’t organize the games or resolve spats.
Studies, such as the ones published in the International Journal of Play (2021) and The School Community Journal (2020), show that children who have participated in their school-sponsored Play Club have reported making new friends, including friends in other grades, and feeling better about school. Teachers say they’ve seen greater class participation and empathy from the children who attend the club. One school even reported that discipline problems declined, attributing the change to more free play. Even though attending the club means waking up an hour earlier in some cases, parents say that their children are eager to go to school on Play Club days.
Another initiative Let Grow developed for schools is the Let Grow Experience, a free curriculum that gives students homework assignments such as, “Go home and do something new, with your parents’ permission, but on your own (or with a friend). Depending on your age and neighborhood, you can shoot hoops, bake cookies, walk the dog. …” For many children who have been more sheltered, these assignments can be quite exciting and growth-promoting.
One eighth grader we heard from had been too frightened to walk to school. After doing several new things on her own, her fear subsided. Now she’s a walker. A boy whose seventh grade teacher assigned 20 experiences wrote her a letter three years later saying, “I have been a lot happier in general than I used to be when things like depression and anxiety were still hovering over my head.” For this he thanked her and the independent activities he’d done for class.
These seemingly small self-directed activities can boost children’s well-being, sometimes dramatically. Gray is currently working with a group of researchers in New Hampshire to study the impact of Let Grow programs by assessing the effects in schools that will adopt one or both Let Grow programs and those that don’t.
Faced with a generation of young people more anxious and depressed than ever, schools know they must do something, and fast. It’s possible that giving kids the old-fashioned joys of free play and real-world independence could be the simplest, quickest (and least expensive) “therapy” they need to start feeling hopeful and capable again.
- “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence,” by Peter Gray et al., The Journal of Pediatrics, September 2023
- “This Simple Fix Could Help Anxious Kids,” by Lenore Skenazy and Camilo Ortiz, The New York Times, September 4, 2023
- Learn more about Let Grow programming at letgrow.org, and get the free implementation guides at letgrow.org/program/play-club and letgrow.org/program/experience.