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How lack of independent play is impacting children's mental health

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We've been hearing a lot about the mental health crisis among children. Researchers have looked at a number of reasons, from social media use to isolation during the pandemic. But a recent commentary published in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at another factor - the decline of independent activity and play for children. Peter Gray is the lead author of that piece. For years, he's been following the trend of declining mental health in kids and the declining levels of independent play. He joins us now. Welcome.

PETER GRAY: I'm very happy to be here.

SUMMERS: So, Peter, how is it that you and your co-author started to focus on the decline of independent play as a potential factor when it comes to the mental health crisis that we're seeing among kids?

GRAY: Well, I've actually been studying play for many, many years and what play does for children, how children acquire confidence and abilities and make friends through play. And I've also, for a long time, been aware of the fact that over the past 50 to 70 years, there has been a continuous decline in children's opportunities to play freely, away from adult intervention and control. So at some point, I began to put those findings together with the observation that, over this same period, the last 50 to 70 years - I mean, everybody is concerned about the most recent increase in anxiety, depression, even suicide among young people. But the mental health crisis really has long preceded COVID, and it has long preceded the internet.

SUMMERS: When you're talking about this decline of independent play that you're dating back to nearly half a century, do you have any sense of where the roots of that are? What changed?

GRAY: I think a lot of things changed. Television changed things. It brought kids inside, isolated them somewhat. Another thing that changed, and I think more significantly, is that over time, we began to develop the view that children develop best when they are guided and controlled by adults. This resulted in an increased amount of schooling and increased emphasis on schooling and the development of organized sports for kids and in other adult-directed activities outside of school, leaving less and less time for free play. In addition to that, beginning particularly in the 1980s, we developed a fear of allowing children to be outdoors unguarded by an adult. What was normal parenting before the 1980s of just sending your kids outdoors to play, that began to become regarded as negligent parenting because of fear that something terrible would happen to them.

SUMMERS: OK. So let's unspool this out a little bit here. What is the connection between that less independent time and independent play that you're describing and the declining mental health among kids that we're seeing? How do those two things correlate?

GRAY: Play, to me and to most play researchers, is something that children do themselves. It's not something that is organized by an adult. It's something that - where children decide what they're going to do and control what they're going to do and solve the problems as they're doing it. That's how children develop the kinds of character traits that allow them to ultimately become independent adults. They learn that - they learn how to deal with peers without an adult intervening. They learn how to deal with minor bullying. There are always going to be bullies around.

SUMMERS: Right.

GRAY: But if you're always protected from bullies by some adult, you're not learning how to deal with that yourself. If we're not allowing these kinds of things to happen with young children, they're not learning that they can solve their own problems, they can take control of their lives. And when you believe that you cannot, then you kind of develop a victim attitude, like anything can happen at any time and there's nothing I can do about it. And that's an attitude that sets you up for anxiety and depression.

SUMMERS: I imagine if you're a parent or a caregiver for a child who's listening to this conversation, they might be asking themselves, what can I do? What are ways that I can give my child more independence, more time for that solo play that you're saying is so important? What would you tell those people?

GRAY: So within the neighborhood, a group of parents might decide, look, let's - every Friday afternoon, let's all send our kids outdoors. Just send them outdoors. Leave the cellphone inside. And there's going to be other kids out there. And maybe you have one parent out there, or ideally a grandparent, out there just for safety. And you let the kids play. It takes initiative. It's not necessarily that easy to do, but I know of families that do that.

SUMMERS: Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College. Thanks so much for being here.

GRAY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mia Venkat
Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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