Playtime! Making Time to Play Can Boost Mental Health and Happiness

Children’s mental health is a serious concern for parents as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warns of a mental health pandemic. While, the solutions to address this issue are complex, one approach can involve some fun for both parents and children: play. Experts agree that making time for play can lead to significant benefits for all.

Importance of Play

A recent study finds links between children’s lack of play and declining mental health. An article in Psychology Today details the key findings of the report including strong evidence of the need for unstructured play, which is critical for children’s mental health, in addition to boosting confidence. The research concludes that when children don’t play, they are more vulnerable to stress, depression, and anxiety.

 The article, published by Dr. Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College and prominent researcher on child play in March 2023 in the Journal of Pediatrics, concludes “the ongoing decline in children’s mental health—and the current mental health emergency for children in the U.S.—appears at least in part to be driven by a lack of opportunities to roam, play, and act independently.”

Rebecca Rolland Ed.D., writes that this research aligns with what she observes as a speech-language pathologist, lecturer in education, and mother of two. She reasons that as structured activities, “come at the expense of downtime and unstructured time, they can become counterproductive. Children have little chance for internal thought or decision-making, or for the more complex language of negotiation and collaboration. Worse, as Gray’s article concludes, these limitations are strongly linked to stress, anxiety, and depression, as children gain little experience stretching or challenging themselves. Without the opportunities to build skills, they often start lacking confidence. They may feel as if they can’t take on challenges—since they simply don’t.”

The organization, The Right to Play, a leader in using the power of play to help the world’s most marginalized children, sees the power of play in the most extreme conditions. “Play protects children from the worst of the long-lasting psychological consequences of trauma, grief, and isolation. It prevents mental health conditions from worsening, and helps children continue to develop emotionally, socially, and cognitively — even under the toughest conditions.”

Play Well with Others

In addition to individual play, studies also show that children who learn to play well with their peers by the age of three are likely to enjoy better mental health later in childhood. The Guardian reports that research from the University of Cambridge establishes a connection between “peer play ability” before children go to school and improved mental health at the age of seven.

According to the Guardian, “The findings have prompted calls for children who are at risk of poor mental health to be given priority access to high-quality playgroups run by early years specialists to help protect against future mental health problems.”

How to Make Time for Play

The good news is that making time for unstructured play doesn’t take a lot of planning or resources. Play can take many forms and is easy as providing some space and time. PBS kids, experts in children’s play, offers some ideas to get you started:


  • Have a family dance party (take turns choosing the song).
  • Set out old boxes in different sizes. Use markers, scissors, and paper to create “houses,” “boats,” “nests” — whatever your imaginations can dream up!
  • Role-play “helping” jobs such as nurse, doctor, teacher, firefighter, ambulance driver, and so on.
  • Read a story, then act out some scenes together. Put on skits for other family members.
  • Ask your child to teach the whole family how to play a game she plays in school.
  • Have play dates, with other children 
  • Set up an arts-and-crafts table in a space where you can join your child in creative play. Include simple items such as a stack of paper (or old magazines) of any kind, child- safe scissors, and a glue stick. Grown-ups can share their own skills, such as making paper airplanes!


  • Play in your yard or park
  • Walk the dog
  • Go on a family bike ride or nature walk 




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