Children who learn to play well with others in preschool tend to enjoy better mental health with age, according to new research – ScienceDaily

Children who learn to play well with others in preschool tend to enjoy better mental health with age, new research shows. The findings provide the first clear evidence that “peer play ability”, the ability to play successfully with other children, has a protective effect on mental health.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge analyzed data from nearly 1,700 children collected at the age of three and seven. Those with better playing abilities at the age of three consistently show fewer signs of ill mental health four years later. They tend to have lower hyperactivity, parents and teachers report fewer behavioral and emotional problems, and are less likely to get into fights or disagreements with other children.

Importantly, this connection is generally true even when researchers focus on subgroups of children who are particularly at risk for mental health problems. It also applies when they look at other mental health risk factors, such as poverty levels or cases where the mother has experienced severe psychological stress during or immediately after pregnancy.

The findings show that providing young children who may be vulnerable to mental health problems with access to well-supported opportunities to play with peers – for example in playgroups run by early childhood professionals – can be a way to benefits significantly in the long run. mental health.

Dr Jenny Gibson of the Center for Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge’s School of Education said: and start school. Even if they are at risk of ill mental health, these friendship networks will often overcome them. “

Vicki Yiran Zhao, a PEDAL PhD student and first author of the study, added: “It’s the quality that matters, not the quantity of peer play. Playing with peers that encourages children to collaborate, for example, or activities that encourage sharing will have positive impact benefits. “

Researchers used data from 1,676 children in the Growing up in Australia study, which tracked 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 they played children in different situations at the age of three. This covers various types of peer play, including simple games; a game of pretending with imagination; targeted activities (such as building a tower of blocks); and collaborative games such as hide and seek.

These four peer play indicators were used to create a measure of ‘peer play ability’ – the child’s basic ability to engage with peers in a playful way. Researchers have calculated the strength of the link between this measure and the reported symptoms of possible mental health problems – hyperactivity and behavior, emotional and peer problems – at the age of seven.

The study then analyzed two subgroups of children within the overall cohort. These are children with high “reactivity” (children who are very easily upset and find it difficult to calm down in early childhood) and children with low “perseverance” (children who struggle to persevere when faced with a challenging task). Both of these traits are associated with poor mental health outcomes.

Throughout the data set, children with a higher score for play abilities of three-year-olds consistently show fewer signs of mental health problems at the age of seven. For each unit of increase in the ability to play peers at age three, the measured score of children for problems with hyperactivity at age seven fell by 8.4%, behavioral problems by 8%, emotional problems by 9.8% and problems with peers by 14%. This applies regardless of potential confusing factors such as poverty levels and maternal distress and whether they have had plenty of opportunities to play with siblings and parents.

The effect was obvious even among at-risk groups. In particular, among the 270 children in the low persistence category, those who were better at playing with their three-year-old peers consistently had lower hyperactivity and fewer emotional and peer problems. seven years old. This may be due to the fact that peer play often forces children to solve problems and face unexpected challenges and therefore directly addresses low perseverance.

The benefits of peer play are weaker for the high-reactivity subgroup, probably because such children are often anxious and withdrawn and less likely to play with others. However, even among this group, better peer play at age three is associated with lower hyperactivity at age seven.

The consistent link between peer play and mental health probably exists because playing with others promotes the development of emotional self-control and socio-cognitive skills, such as the ability to understand and respond to other people’s feelings. They are essential for building stable, reciprocal friendships. There is already good evidence that the better a person’s social connections, the better his or her mental health. For children, more social connections also create a virtuous cycle, as they usually lead to more opportunities for peer play.

Researchers suggest that assessing children’s access to peer play at an early age can be used to screen those who are potentially at risk for future mental health problems. They also argue that providing access to families of children at risk to environments that promote high-quality peer play, such as play groups or care in small groups with professional child caregivers, can be an easy and inexpensive way to reduce the chances of mental health problems later.

“The standard offer right now is for parents to join a parenting course,” Gibson said. “We can focus much more on giving children better opportunities to meet and play with their peers. There are already fantastic up and down initiatives in the country run by professionals who provide just this service to a very high standard. Our findings show how important their work is, especially given that other risk factors that endanger children’s mental health can often be due to circumstances beyond their parents’ control. “

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