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Study: Toddlers who do this are less likely to have mental health issues

Those with better peer play ability at age three consistently showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later.

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Two African American cheerful little girl sitting on the mat and hugging each other with love in the garden
(Photo by Blue Titan via Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Toddlers who play with other children before they are old enough to start school are less likely to suffer mental health problems later in life, according to a new study.

Cambridge University researchers found that children who learn to play well with others at pre-school age tend to enjoy better mental well-being as they get older.

The findings, published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, provide the first clear evidence that ‘peer play ability’ - the capacity to play successfully with other children - has a protective effect on mental health.

The Cambridge team analyzed 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 arguments with other children.

The 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 Cambridge University, 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.”

Study first author Vicky Yiran Zhao, a PhD Student in PEDAL, 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 information from more than 1,600 children in the Growing up in Australia study, which is tracking the development of children born Down Under 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.

It 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 such as hide-and-seek.

Those four peer play indicators were used to create a measure of ‘peer play ability’ – the underlying ability of a child to engage with other youngsters in a playful way.

The researchers calculated the strength of the relationship between that measure and reported symptoms of possible mental health problems – hyperactivity, and conduct, emotional and peer problems – at age seven.

The study then analyzed two sub-groups: children with high ‘reactivity’ (those who were very easily upset and difficult to soothe in infancy), and those with low ‘persistence’ (children who struggled to persevere when encountering a challenging task).

Both the traits are linked to poor mental health.

Two pregnant mothers on sofa at home with toddler son and baby girl
(Photo by Air Images via Shutterstock)

Across the entire group, children with a higher peer play ability score at age three consistently showed fewer signs of mental health difficulties at age seven.

For every unit increase in peer play ability at age three, children’s measured score for hyperactivity problems at age seven fell by 8.4 percent, conduct problems by eight percent, emotional problems by 9.8 percent and peer problems by 14 percent.

The effect was evident even among the at-risk groups.

In particular, among the 270 children in the ‘low persistence’ category, those who were better at playing with peers at age three consistently had lower hyperactivity, and fewer emotional and peer problems, at age seven.

The research team said that may be because peer play often forces children to problem-solve and confront unexpected challenges, and therefore directly addresses low persistence.

The benefits of peer play were weaker for the high reactivity sub-group, possibly because such children are often anxious and withdrawn, and less inclined to play with others.

However, even among that group better peer play at age three was linked to lower hyperactivity at age seven.

Dr. Gibson said: "The consistent link between peer play and mental health probably exists because playing with others supports the development of emotional self-control and socio-cognitive skills, such as the ability to understand and respond to other people’s feelings.

"These are fundamental to building stable, reciprocal friendships. There is already good evidence that the better a person’s social connections, the better their mental health tends to be.

"For children, more social connections also create a virtuous cycle, as they usually lead to more opportunities for peer play."

The researchers suggest that assessing children’s access to peer play at an early age could be used to screen for those potentially at risk of future mental health problems.

Dr. Gibson added. “We could be focusing much more on giving children better opportunities to meet and play with their peers.

"There are already fantastic initiatives up and down the country, run by professionals who provide exactly that service to a very high standard.

"Our findings show how crucial their work is, especially given that the other risk factors jeopardizing children’s mental health could often be down to circumstances beyond their parents’ control.”

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