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Learning to play well

Playing. It’s just something children do. To pass the time; to entertain themselves; to relieve boredom.

Nothing more, nothing less – or at least, so it often seems.

You might not have given this all that much thought, but to consider this in a little more depth is to realise that there’s rather more to playing than most people might at first suspect. 

Take the latest research from Cambridge University, for instance. Released this summer, this has provided clear evidence – for the first time – that children who learn to play well with others during their pre-school years tend to enjoy improved mental health as they get older.

Still think that playing is just something that children do; that it’s all about passing the time, entertaining themselves and relieving boredom?

Given a little more focus, it becomes clear that ‘peer play ability’, developed during those crucial early years, can have a ‘protective effect’ that can provide benefits that last throughout childhood.

Using data from almost 1,700 children – collected at ages three and then seven – researchers at Cambridge discovered that those who were the best equipped to play with others at the younger age demonstrated fewer signs of mental health issues four years later.

Those children, the study’s authors noted, 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 findings are fascinating – not least that the connection held true even when researchers focused on sub-groups considered to be at greater risk of mental health issues (those exposed to significant poverty, for instance, or cases in which the mother had experienced serious psychological distress during or immediately after pregnancy).

“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,” said Dr Jenny Gibson, from the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Centre at Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education. “Even if they are at risk of poor mental health, those friendship networks will often get them through.”

This is something that has been known – or at least suspected – for some time, although such beliefs have, to this point, been anecdotal rather than evidence based. That the Cambridge research has applied data to the theory means young children who might be particularly susceptible or vulnerable to mental health issues could be offered opportunities to reduce future problems at an early age.

“What matters is the quality, rather than the quantity, of peer play,” explained Vicky Yiran Zhao, a PhD student at PEDAL, and the first author of the study. “Games with peers that encourage children to collaborate, for example, or activities that promote sharing, will have positive knock-on benefits.”

This is, in a nutshell, what it’s all about: learning to share, to co-exist and to collaborate during those all-important formative years. Making such things natural before starting school. Encouraging children to do things together, whether the focus be imaginative pretend play, goal-directed activities (such as building a tower from blocks), or collaborative games such as hide and seek. 

That there’s rather more to such activities than just passing the time and relieving boredom is quite clear. Indeed, as the Cambridge research has discovered, the more time that is spent engaged in such play at an early age, the less chance children stand of encountering significant issues in later life.

That playing can aid problem-solving and improve a child’s ability to confront unexpected challenges underlines how important this period is, supporting the development of emotional self-control and socio-cognitive skills, such as the ability to understand, interpret and respond to the feelings of others.

Cambridge researchers believe that assessing children’s access to peer play at an early age could be used to identify those most at risk of future mental health issues, and that providing enhanced opportunities could be a practical and proactive step towards reducing common childhood problems.

“The standard offer at the moment is to put the parents on a parenting course,” added Dr Gibson. “[But] we could be focusing much more on giving children better opportunities to meet and play with their peers. There are already fantastic initiatives [that] provide that service to a high standard . . . our findings show how crucial this work is, especially given that the other risk factors jeopardising children’ mental health could often be down to circumstances beyond their parents’ control.”

Like to find out more about the Cambridge research and the importance of play? Click here to read the article in full.