6 Ways Play Boosts Emotional and Mental Health in Kids

Photo credit: Bruce Silcox

It’s no secret that the amount of time kids spend playing has been declining. In fact, kids growing up today play an average of eight hours less per week than children did in the 1980s.

The trend has prompted warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization that a lack of play time has a negative impact on kids.

When kids don’t play enough, they miss out on opportunities to build important skills – such as critical and creative thinking, communication, collaboration and more.

The decline in play also contributes to rising levels of anxiety, stress and depression in kids today. Researchers from National Survey of Children’s Health  found a 20 percent increase in anxiety diagnoses in kids ages 6 to 17 between 2007 and 2012. And a study published this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression rose by 47 percent among those ages 12 to 13.

How Does Play Reduce Stress? 

Declining play isn’t the only factor contributing to rising mental health issues in kids. More regimented academics and increased screen time, for example, play a significant role. But, when kids are given the space and freedom to play, the benefits are powerful. Play not only helps kids build cognitive skills, but it also helps contribute to emotional and mental health as well. Through play, kids:

  • Gain a sense of control. When kids direct their own play, they gain a sense of control and build confidence.
  • Solve problems and build resilience. Play provides a safe space for kids to try something new, tackle challenges and try, try, try again if at first they don’t succeed.
  • Develop social-emotional skills. When kids play with each other, they develop social-emotional skills like empathy and compassion, develop self-control and learn how to work through conflict.
  • Discover their own interests. Through unstructured play, kids follow their own interests, which helps them build a sense of self and sparks curiosity and wonder.
  • Strengthen relationships. When parents and kids play, it’s a bonding experience – one that builds life-long memories and strengthens relationships.
  • Experience joy. Simply put, when kids play, it brings a sense of happiness and joy to their world.

What Can Parents Do? 

Life is busy. We get it. Pressures like academics, structured activities and other outside pressures take up a lot of time and can be overwhelming. We encourage parents to do their best to protect children’s playtime by setting aside a little bit of time each day to ensure kids can experience the power of play. We also encourage you to get in there and play too! Play is good for everyone no matter their age.


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