Pre-school play with friends lowers risk of mental health problems later: Children who learn to play well with others at pre-school age tend to enjoy better mental health as they get older, new research shows

Children who learn to play well with others at pre-school age tend to enjoy better mental health as they get older, new research shows. The findings provide the first clear evidence that ‘peer play ability’, the capacity to play successfully with other children, has a protective effect on mental health.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge analysed data from almost 1,700 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. They 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.

Importantly, this connection generally held true even when the researchers focused on sub-groups of children who were particularly at risk of mental health problems. It also applied when they considered other risk factors for mental health — such as poverty levels, or cases in which the mother had experienced serious psychological distress during or immediately after pregnancy.

The findings suggest that giving young children who might be vulnerable to mental health issues access to well-supported opportunities to play with peers — for example, at playgroups run by early years specialists — could be a way to significantly benefit their 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.”

Vicky Yiran Zhao, a PhD Student in PEDAL and first author on the study added: “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.”

The researchers used data from 1,676 children in the Growing up in Australia study, which is tracking the development of children born in Australia between March 2003 and February 2004. It includes a record, provided by parents and carers, of how well the children played in different situations at age three. This covered different types of peer play, including simple games; imaginative pretend play; goal-directed activities (such as building a tower from blocks); and collaborative games like hide-and-seek.

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