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Is The Lack Of Independent Play Causing The Declining Mental Health Of Children?

New research tells us that the rise in childhood mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression may be linked to declining opportunities to play, explore, and engage in activities independent of parental control and oversight. My Mind News looks into the research’s findings.

Mental health issues in children are on the rise

Anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens are at an all-time high. In 2021, in the United States, child and adolescent mental health were declared a national emergency.

Although various causes are thought to contribute to this decline in mental health, a new study by three prominent researchers specializing in child development points to independent child’s play.

Details of a research study recently published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggest that the rise in mental health disorders is attributed to a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam and engage in activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.

Are we over-protecting our children?

Although well intended, adults’ actions to guide and protect their children have deprived those children of the independence needed for their mental health, contributing to record levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people.

According to Dr. David Bjorklund, co-author and a professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science told Neuroscience News,

“Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school. But they hear little of the countervailing messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity.

This includes self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable. They need to feel they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the world of school,”


The study also showed that children’s freedom to engage in activities involving some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults has declined over the decades. Risky play, such as climbing high into a tree, helps protect children from developing phobias and reduces future anxiety by boosting self-confidence to deal with emergencies.

Are children overworked?

Among the many constraints that impact independent activity in children today identified in the study include the increased time they spend in school and on schoolwork at home.

Between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the school year in the US increased by five weeks. Homework, once rare or nonexistent in elementary school, is now common even in kindergarten.

Moreover, by 2014, the average time spent having breaks during the school day (including lunchtime) at elementary schools was just 26.9 minutes a day, and some schools had no breaks at all. Yet according to the study team, play is a significant category of independent activity, especially for young children. Research and everyday observation indicate that play is a direct source of children’s happiness.

The researchers suggest the increase in school time and pressure to achieve over decades may have impacted mental health not just by detracting from time and opportunity for independent activities but also because fear of academic failure, or fear of insufficient achievement, is a direct source of distress.

On this point, Dr. Bjorklund states,

“Unlike other crises, such as the COVID epidemic, this decline in independent activity, and hence, mental wellbeing in children has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it. Moreover, unlike other health crises, this one is not the result of a highly contagious virus, but rather the result of good intentions carried too far.

Intentions to protect children and provide what many believed to be better (interpreted as more) schooling, both in and out of actual schools.”


For the study, Bjorklund and his co-authors summarize the significant decline over decades in children’s opportunities for independent activity; a substantial decline over the same decades in young people’s mental health; the effects of independent activity on children’s happiness; and the effects of independent activity in building long-term psychological resilience.

In summary

Noting that concern for children’s safety and the value of adult guidance needs to be tempered by the recognition that, as children grow, they need ever-increasing opportunities to manage their own activities independently.

This process cannot be an overnight change, but the positive effects will likely be seen if steps are taken now. The ways by which this can be accomplished in today’s world will largely depend on how parents, schools, family doctors, and public policymakers assist in promoting such changes.

What do you think about the research and its findings? Let us know in the comments.

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