Improved mental health for children who play well with peers by age three | Children

Children who learn to play well with their peers by the age of three are likely to enjoy better mental health later in childhood, according to research from the University of Cambridge.

The study is said to be the first to establish a connection between “peer play ability” before children go to school and improved mental health at the age of seven. Researchers say it is the quality – rather than quantity – of play that matters.

The findings have prompted calls for children who are at risk of poor mental health to be given priority access to high-quality playgroups run by early years specialists to help protect against future mental health problems.

Researchers analysed data from almost 1,700 children in an Australian longitudinal study, taken at ages three and seven and found those with better peer play ability when younger showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later.

Parents, teachers and carers reported lower levels of hyperactivity, fewer behaviour and emotional problems among children who have learned to play with their peers pre-school, and they had fewer fights or disagreements with other children.

According to researchers, the protective link between peer play and mental health persists even for those children at particular risk of mental health problems, or those with additional risk factors such as poverty and maternal distress.

One of the authors, Dr Jenny Gibson from the faculty of education at 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.”

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

Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter and an expert in play and child mental health, said the research showed just how vital play with other children was for providing a foundation for good mental health.

She said: “It is important to have research demonstrating this link between play and mental health to ensure that play is taken seriously in education and policy more generally. It is particularly important currently given that children’s play with their peers was so restricted during Covid-19 lockdowns.”