Unstructured play can create mentally healthier kids

Playing with peers helps create fully functioning adults, say experts Claire Gagne

Young people are increasingly dealing with mental health issues in Canada. In fact, a recent survey showed 63 per cent of millennials could be classified as “high risk” when it came to their mental health, compared to just 24 per cent of boomers. Experts suggest one reason behind this disparity could be our reluctance to simply let kids play.

“The opportunity for kids to freely engage in play with one another has diminished considerably over the last 50 years,” says Sergio Pellis, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, who is featured in The Power of Play, a documentary from The Nature of Things. “If you look at the mental health state of kids over the last 50 years, it’s getting worse. Kids are showing more signs of psychopathologies like depression, anxiety and alienation.”

Pellis says that the research he and others have conducted connects “free play” — that is, play that’s kid-directed and has no real purpose other than to pleasurably pass the time — with the development of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for attention, working memory, impulse control and emotional regulation.

“When we looked at whether manipulating the experience of playing in the juvenile period in rats can affect the development of these skills, the answer was yes,” he says.

In other words, what looks like just horsing around could actually be an incredibly important part of developing the ability to handle oneself in a given situation, whether it’s in the classroom, on the playground or, eventually, in the workforce.

Emotional regulation

To understand why, we need to take a close look at what’s happening when kids are playing. When two kids play wrestle, for example, dozens of tiny negotiations take place. “Rough-and-tumble play involves trying to get some advantage over one another, but you have to do it in a way that sustains the other’s interest,” explains Pellis.

That means taking turns, and if you start gaining an advantage over the other person, figuring out how to let them get a leg up for a bit. “You have to continually monitor what you’re doing and what your partner’s doing,” Pellis says. “And if you get knocked over, you’ve got to put the right emotional tone on that. For example: ‘It’s okay, Fred and I are just playing. So that’s nothing to react negatively about.’”

Executive functioning skills are what help kids succeed in environments like the classroom. Kids are bombarded with stimuli, and need to be able to focus their attention on the task at hand, whether it’s listening to their teacher or completing an independent activity. They need impulse control to stop for a moment if another kid is bothering them and figure out what to do next, while emotional regulation is what helps them interact appropriately with peers and the teacher.

“Together, these executive functioning skills help you, at any given moment, figure out the best course of action to take in that situation,” Pellis says. “These really are critical skills to make you a fully functioning person.”

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Letting kids make the rules

While a definitive link hasn’t been proven, Pellis says it’s highly likely that poor executive functioning skills lead to anxiety and depression, as they tend to hinder a person’s ability to fit in with their social group, family and peers.

The good news is that these skills can be developed in lots of different types of play — as long as kids are playing together and are in charge of what’s happening. While organized sports are great for exercise, somebody else is making and enforcing the rules. Similarly, building a Lego kit takes focus and fine motor skills, but comes with specific directions.

“Interacting playfully with peers seems to be really critical,” says Pellis. Kids who like dramatic play, for example, are working on executive functioning skills as they decide who will take which role, and how the game will progress.

“Kids, when left on their own, will make up their own games, so there are no rules. They have to negotiate: What rules are we going to follow? What is going to be a fair way for all the participants in the game? Am I going to feel like I’m getting from something of value out of the game?”

Unfortunately today, physical play is often discouraged by parents and teachers for fear of kids getting hurt. And as extracurricular activities take up an increasingly large amount of time in kids’ schedules, children are getting less and less time to play on their own, away from input of teachers, coaches, parents and referees.

“I have concerns that by diminishing the opportunity for kids to freely choose to engage in whatever kind of play they want with their peers, we’re not doing them a service and we’re actually making their long-term life a lot harder,” says Pellis.

To learn more, watch The Power of Play on The Nature of Things.


Available on CBC Gem

The Power of Play

Nature of Things