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More Work and Less Play Leads to Anxiety in Kids

Published on 2016-03-29 11:20:00

During a conversation this past week, we discussed how times have changed from our own childhoods and those of our children. We reminisced and exchanged stories of how we, as children, would disappear outdoors for the day with our friends, exploring farmland or forested areas, heading out on our bicycles and returning at dusk for dinner, without our parents having any contact with us, sometimes for hours. Often our parents would call us in, way after dark, from a game of street cricket with our neighbours’ children.

The conversation then turned to the current generation of children. Take a walk around your neighbourhood and how many children do you see playing in their own gardens, let alone outside with the neighbours? Take a walk through these homes and you’re likely to find kids mesmerized by laptop or tablet screens, or slaving away over structured activities or homework.

It is the intrinsic nature of children to play, and they do so whenever they have the opportunity. So why are children playing less? The major factors seem to be:

  • Increased time spent on computer games, cell phones and tablets
  • Parents’ fear of crime and the need to keep children under their watchful eye
  • Parents’ restrictions on play time as a result of their own busy lifestyles
  • Parent-driven activities such as pressure to excel at school and participate in extramural activities, restricting free-play time.

From pre-school stage, parents are under pressure for their children to reach developmental milestones to meet school readiness requirements. However, children have a natural tendency to learn and master skills through their environment and unstructured play. Play deprivation in pre-school children can have numerous effects such as aggressiveness, constant complaining, lack of emotional and social expression, difficulty in socialising, and tendencies towards obesity.

In a publication by Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College, in the American Journal of Play, he examines the decline of children’s play and the rise of anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness and narcissism in children over the past 50 years, and the link between these two.

Gray speaks about research done over the decades, lead by Jean Twenge of San Diego University, using a method of assessment, The Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale, with children ages nine to eleven since 1956, to document the rise in children’s mental disorders. Variations of the test were done on college students as well. Eighty-five percent of children in the most recent assessments have average scores for depression and anxiety that are greater than the averages in the 1950s, meaning five to eight times more with scores above the cut-off for a probable diagnosis of a significant disorder than 50 years ago. Accordingly, suicide rates for children under the age of fifteen quadrupled from 1950 to 2005.

There are five ways in which play promotes mental health:

1. Discovery of intrinsic interests and capabilities 

When children are playing, they are discovering their own likes and dislikes, what they can and can’t do, and setting their own intrinsic goals or desired outcomes of their play time. When they are following extrinsic goals, such as those placed on them by adults directing them to work towards the world’s ideas of success in study or sport, they are being set up for anxiety and depression. Gray states that “in school, children work for grades and praise (extrinsic goals) and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies (extrinsic goals)—all of which depend on other people’s judgments. But, in free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that result are by-products, not conscious goals of the activity.”

2. Decision making, problem-solving, self-control and abiding by rules

“If the rise in anxiety and depression are linked to a decline in sense of personal control, then play would seem to be the perfect remedy” says Gray. In schoolwork and sport, activities are directed by adults, whereas in play, actions are directed by the child themselves. Children are the masters of their own games, and as such, they need to learn to follow their own rules, practice self-control, solve their own problems and make their own decisions if they want the desired outcome they have set out to achieve.

3. Controlling Emotions

Studies on young mammals show that in play, youngsters put themselves into reasonably frightening situations, learning how to deal with physical and emotional challenges necessary for life. Children playing outdoors are no different as they jump, climb and swing their way across playgrounds, stimulating just the right level of fear so as to keep the activity interesting without being terrifying. They do the same in social situations, learning how to control emotions such as anger and fear.

4. Making friends and developing a sense of equality

Gray says that “play is children’s natural means of making friends. It is what draws them and binds them together.” Shared interests and common goals forge friendships on the playground, while squelching narcissistic tendencies formed at home or in the classroom. On the playground, there is little tolerance for special treatment or superiority within a group.

5. Experience happiness

There is no better way to state the obvious than Gray’s sentiments: “Perhaps the most straightforward explanation for the rise of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents is that, as a society, we have increasingly forced them into settings that make them unhappy and anxious and have deprived them of the activities that make them happy. Play makes children happy, and it is our responsibility as adults to provide them with opportunities for outdoor free play.

In her article on playing with your child, Dr Laura Markham says “The normal challenges of every day for a growing child of any age stimulate all kinds of feelings. Children release these emotions through play. Laughter, specifically, transforms our body chemistry by reducing stress hormones and increasing bonding hormones. Kids are more physical than adults. When they get wound up emotionally, their bodies need to discharge all that energy.”

As adults we need to be conscious of our children’s work-play balance as well as the barriers we create to free-play. We should be aware of the effects and warning signs that our children are suffering emotionally due to imbalance and lack of free, outdoor playtime. We must take the necessary steps to relieve unnecessary pressures allowing them to be guided by their own intrinsic motivations to learn through their explorations of their environment and let kids be kids.




  1. Peter Gray, American Journal of Play, volume 3, number 4. , “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents”,


  1. Newsroom: NWU Potchefstroom Campus, “The value of unstructured play for pre-schoolchildren,”


  1. Dr Laura Markham, “Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence”,




Article Author: Deirdre Gower

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