Play in early years linked to mental health

17 June 2022

Children who learn to play well with others at pre-school age have a lower risk of mental health problems as they get older, according to new research by the University of Cambridge.

The findings show that the capacity to play successfully with other children or “peer play ability” has a protective effect on mental health.

The researchers analysed data from almost 1700 children, collected when they were aged three and seven. Those with better peer play ability at age three consistently showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later. Children tended to have lower hyperactivity, parents and teachers reported fewer conduct and emotional problems, and they were less likely to get into fights or disagreements with other children.

The protective link between peer play and mental health was also present even for those children who were particularly at risk of mental health problems or for those with additional risk factors for mental health such as poverty. The research highlights that playing with others supports the development of emotional self-control and socio-cognitive skills, such as the ability to understand and respond to other people’s feelings, which are fundamental to building stable, reciprocal friendships.

The researchers propose that assessing children’s access to peer play at an early age could be used to screen for those potentially at risk of future mental health problems. They are also calling for young children who might be vulnerable to mental health issues to have access to well-supported opportunities for high-quality peer play, such as playgroups run by early years specialists. They argue that this could be an easily deliverable and low-cost way to significantly benefit children’s long-term mental health.

Dr Jenny Gibson, from the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said:

“We think this connection exists because through playing with others, children acquire the skills to build strong friendships as they get older and start school. Even if they are at risk of poor mental health, those friendship networks will often get them through.

“The standard offer at the moment is to put the parents on a parenting course. We could be focusing much more on giving children better opportunities to meet and play with their peers. There are already fantastic initiatives up and down the country, run by professionals who provide exactly that service to a very high standard. Our findings show how crucial their work is, especially given that the other risk factors jeopardising children’s mental health could often be down to circumstances beyond their parents’ control.”