Free Play, Mental Health and the Privilege of an “Overprotected Childhood”

Image of a child's leg sitting on pavement, freely playing with sidewalk chalk
Image of a child's leg sitting on pavement, freely playing with sidewalk chalk

At Treehouse Learning, we closely monitor research and insights related to play-based learning and other issues impacting the capacity for all children to thrive. In the context of our Whole Brain, Whole Person, Whole Planet perspective, we take a long-view horizon towards child development, and are particularly concerned with making connections to our larger mission of helping the world thrive- and everything in it. 

We wanted to share some research looking into the relationship between mental health and play-based learning, including this piece by Peter Gray on Play Deficit as Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Health, as well as Jonathan Haidt’s engagement with Gray’s work in this piece.  Each shares different views on the negative impact of smartphones and social media on mental health, and both raise alarms around the impact of declining free play and a general state of “overprotection” faced by children that interfere with the children’s ability to play, and therefore fully thrive with robust physical and mental health.

Image of a child in socks and sandals walking on shallow water
Play is a universal need of children that supports lifetime positive mental health, but many children are deprived of access to the conditions supporting free play, for a variety of individual and systemic reasons

Here are Gray’s main points to consider:

  • Research confirms that in the past half-century, children’s freedom to play and explore has declined, coinciding (note that correlation is not necessarily causation) with a measured decline in children’s mental health
  • Reasons cited to support the link between free play and mental health include both the immediate and long-term effects of play and child-driven independent activity on mental well-being. Namely, play is a direct source of children’s happiness and allows for the creation of a strong internal locus of control (i.e. we’re the metaphorical captains of our own ships).
  • Research-based conclusions suggest that mental health depends on our ability to satisfy three basic psychological needs in giving us the skills and resilience to navigate challenges:
    • Autonomy: freedom to choose our own paths
    • Competence: the feeling of being sufficiently skilled to choose those paths
    • Relatedness: support networks (friends, colleagues, families, teachers) for support, including emotional support
  • Grey’s thesis is that the deprivation of play and other independent (child-led) activities deprives children of the experiences they need to grow up with the confidence and ability to run their own lives. This approach seems to lead to conclusions and solutions about how to bring more play into children’s overprotected lives.
Photo of children chasing bubbles in a public plaza
How do we create conditions so that all children have the safety, freedom, and basic needs met in order to truly be children and thrive?

While Gray and Haidt present compelling arguments and evidence, we believe it is also critical to avoid the assumption that this phenomenon is universally applicable to all children without also considering the socio-economic conditions faced unequally by children, including race, class and environmental conditions impacting children’s access to “free play. This includes the impacts of poverty, violence, food or housing insecurity, lack of access to parks or green spaces, etc. 

Clearly, the inability to have our basic needs for safety, shelter, food, and security also has a huge impact on mental health! While many families in Boulder County can identify with the general sense of “overprotection” offered by highly scheduled children’s lives and many parents in our community may notice differences in the observed practice of “free play” versus when we were children ourselves, Gray and Haidt’s work assumes a tremendous amount of privilege. It seems to normalize a so-called typical experience of White, middle-class families as universally representative of all children in our country. 

In fact, systemic inequities and injustices have resulted in many, many children being grossly under-protected, leading to negative outcomes for mental and physical well-being. These include conditions faced by many immigrant children, the school-to-prison pipeline, discrimination and bullying faced by LGBTQ+ youth, exploitation of child labor, including sex trafficking, or the impact of poverty on individual ability to meet our mental health needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence, let alone our basic physiological needs as outlined by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

We are curious to ask different questions than Gray and Haidt asks about how to simply bring more play into children’s overprotected lives without first asking why children are deprived of play. While we are strong advocates for the critical importance of play-based learning opportunities, we’re more curious about what can be done to address the structural factors interfering with children’s ability to be children.

Why is it that overall, children are playing less, despite all of the advances of the past half-century? That is to say, how can we recognize the universal need of children to play as a critical aspect of their development, and address the social-economical and cultural factors interfering with play for any child? How can we create conditions where all children are given the opportunity, tools, and resources to thrive? How do we support resiliency across all living systems and for all human beings, independent of race, class, gender, physical ability, immigration status, education, and more? 

In order to create a vibrant and resilient world, we must seek to create more belonging, rather than perpetuating systems that create more “othering.” When we seek to truly see one another, rather than see one as “an other,” then we can grasp that these are all our children, and children thrive when we support all children to thrive. Positive mental health, therefore, is the organic and spontaneous outcome of thriving systems and thriving humans.

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