The Decline of Play and Rise of Stress in Children

Photo Credit: Free Unsplash Stock Photo photo by user Jenn Richardson

Photo Credit: Free Unsplash Stock Photo photo by user Jenn Richardson

The article, “The Decline of Play and Rise of Stress in Children”, in the summer 2016 edition of the Psychology Foundation of Canada’s Every Mind Matters, is based on the work of Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, whose book, Free to Learn:  Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life (Basic Books) develops on his study of links between the rise in psychopathology in children in first world countries to a corresponding decline in free, unstructured play with other children. His study of American children and their accessibility to unstructured play since the early 20th century has demonstrated that children’s free play has been in steady decline since its peak in the 1950s, while anxiety levels in children are now higher than they were, even in the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  Over the past half century, he demonstrates, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply in first world countries.  “Over the same period,” he states, “anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults.”

In a 2004 survey, 70% of mothers reported that they had played outdoors daily as children, while only 31% said their own children played outdoors every day. This is of particular concern when matched with the findings of another international survey in which over 50% of mothers said that playing outside at a playground or park was the activity that made their children the happiest.

Gray argues that “five to eight times as many young people today have scores above the cutoff for a diagnosis of clinically significant anxiety or depressive disorder than was the case half a century ago” and identifies five ways that free play promotes children’s mental health.

Play helps children:

  • Develop intrinsic interests and competencies
  • Learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control and follow rules
  • Learn to regulate their emotions
  • Make friends and learn to get along with others as equals
  • Experience joy

In a detailed 2011 article for the American Journal of Play, Dr. Gray posits that there is a causal link between the decline of free play and the rise of psychopathology in children, including indices of anxiety, depressions, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism.  He notes, “Children are designed, by natural selection, to play.  Wherever children are free to play, they do.  Worldwide, and over the course of history, most such play has occurred outdoors with other children.  The extraordinary human propensity to play in childhood, and the value of it, manifests itself most clearly in hunter-gatherer cultures.  Anthropologists and other observers have regularly reported that children in such cultures play and explore freely, essentially from dawn to dusk, every day – even in their teen years – and by doing so they acquire the skills and attitudes required for successful adulthood.  Over the past century or so, in the United States and in some other developed nations, opportunities for children to play, especially to play outdoors with other children, have continually declined.”

He defines free play as “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.”  It is important to note that adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall within this definition.  His contention is that “free play’s value for the psychological development of children depends on its self-directed and intrinsically rewarding nature.”

He notes that, with the rise of agricultural societies, and most notably as an impact of the industrial revolution, children had to spend large portions of each day working:  “they played when they could, even while working; and when they did play, they played freely without adult direction”.  However, by the mid-20th century, “children were relatively freed from long hours of labor, and a heightened sentimentality about childhood fostered a positive attitude toward children’s free play and the development of parks and other play spaces to promote it”.  Since around 1955, though, “children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities outside of the world of labor”.

The most notable decline has been in children’s free play with other children.  Up until the 1980’s, he argues, it was possible to walk through almost any North American neighbourhood, in the evenings, weekends and school holidays, and see children outdoors at play.  This has now declined to a level where, “in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outside at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer”.

A large-scale study by the University of Michigan between 1981 and 1997 found that children not only played less in 1997 than in 1981, but also appeared to have less free time for all self-chosen activities in 1997 than in 1981.

Dr. Gray makes the argument that children spend so much time watching television/using electronics and playing by themselves indoors partly because “they are not allowed to play freely outdoors, and when they are allowed outdoors, they do not find the attractive play spaces and groups of other children with whom to play that children found in decades past”.  He cites a recent international survey where 54% of mothers reported that playing outside at a playground or park ranked among the activities that made their children happiest, outranking all other activities including watching television, films or videos (41%) or using electronic games (19%).  In a study sponsored by IKEA, 69% of US children, and 58% in the international sample, said that their preferred place to play is outdoors, and “paired comparisons showed that 89 % of the children preferred outdoor play with friends to watching televisions, and 86% preferred it to computer play”.

Dr. Gray notes that “parents today have more fears about allowing their children to play outdoors than parents in decades past, and media coverage certainly plays a role in these fears….In truth, the rate of such cases is small and has declined”.  Another factor he notes is the increased time and weight given to schooling and to other adult-directed, school-like activities.  “The lengths of the school year and school day have increased; more young children attended academically oriented kindergartens and preschools than in times past; and recess time has shrunk and, in some school districts, disappeared completely.”

In analyzing the decline of mental health of children and adolescents in the same period, Dr. Gray places particular weight of the findings of “standardized assessment questionnaires that have been administered to normative or quasi-normative populations of young people in schools and colleges over the decades”, as it is not confounded by changes in methods of assessment:

  • Taylor’s Manifest Anxiety Scale has been used with college students since 1952, and with elementary-school children, mostly aged 9-11, since 1956.
  • The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) has been used with college students since 1938, and with high-school students (MMPI-A) since 1951.

Studies of these tests have shown that “the most recent scores reveal, on average, approximately a full standard deviation greater than the scores roughly fifty years earlier.  This means that approximately 85% of young people in the most recent samples have anxiety and depression scores greater than the average scores for the same age group in the 1950s.”

Dr. Gray notes, “Suicide rates provide an even more sobering index of decline in young people’s mental health.  Between 1950 and 2005, the suicide rate for US children under age fifteen quadrupled, and that for people between ages fifteen and twenty-four more than doubled.  During the same period, the suicide rate for adults between twenty-five and forty rose only slightly, and the rate for adults over forty declined.”  Studies of the same time period have shown no correlation between increases in psychopathology in children and adolescents realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world (e.g. economic cycles, wars, or other national or world events), in fact, they have demonstrated that “rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the cold war, and the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s than they are today”.

There is a demonstrated correlation between anxiety and depression and an individual’s sense of control or lack of control over there own lives.  Dr. Gray suggests, given that improvements in health and health care, improvements in standard of living for the average person, and reductions of prejudice based on race, gender or sexual orientation, would have increased a sense of personal control.  “Yet,” he states, “the data indicate that young people’s beliefs that they have control over their own destinies have declined continually.”

Studies analyzing results of Rotter’s Internal-External Locus of Control Scale and the version of that test for children, the Children’s Nowicki-Stricklund Internal-External Control Scale (CNSIE), have shown a dramatic shift, from 1960 to 2002, away from the internal and toward the external end of the scale. “The shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more external (more prone to claim lack of personal control) than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. “  The researchers found that the rise in externality was even greater for children than for college students and was greater for elementary-school children than for middle-school children, demonstrating “the same linear trend as the rise in depression and anxiety”.

Dr. Gray notes with concern that “further discouraging news comes from research on narcissism” (an inflated view of the self, which tends to separate the self from others and to inhibit the formation of meaningful relationships).  Individuals who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) tend to exploit others for personal gain, tend to value self-aggrandizement over cooperation, are more likely than others to commit white collar crimes, rank themselves unduly high in leadership abilities, and tend to lash out angrily in response to criticism.

The researchers found that, in the period between 1982 and 2007, the level of narcissism rose significantly and linearly, so that, by 2007, “nearly 70% of college students scored higher in narcissism than the average college student in 1982”.  Dr. Gray comments, “The increased narcissism among young people may seem to be inconsistent with the increases in anxiety, depression, and external locus of control that have been documented over the same years, but in fact it is consistent with these changes.  Narcissism is sometimes characterized as equivalent to high self-esteem, but it is understood by clinicians to be a fragile and defensive variety of self-esteem.  Narcissists commonly experience anxiety and depression when their experiences with reality run counter to their high self-views.  Moreover, narcissists are likely to attribute the lack of congruity between their perceived superior qualities and their relative lack of status and achievement in the world to factors beyond their control, a tendency consistent with an external locus of control.”  He notes, “Various other questionnaires administered to students over the years have shown shifts toward greater materialism, which is a strong correlate of narcissism.  In one repeated survey, for example, the percentage of first-year US college students who ranked ‘Being very well off financially’ among their most important goals increased from 46% in 1967 to 73% in 2006.  Over the same period, the comparable percentage for ‘Developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ dropped from 86% in 1967 to 42% in 2006.”  Other research has shown that today’s high-school students demonstrate “far more unrealistic expectations about their future careers than high-school students in generations past” and are more likely to admit willingness to cheat in order to get high grades.

Dr. Gray points out that correlation does not, in itself, prove causation, however, the researchers on the decline in mental health amongst children, youth and young adults during the past half-century argue convincingly that there has been a continual shift away from intrinsic values (e.g. “developing competence at an activity one enjoys, making friends, finding meaning in life, and pursuing a heartfelt religious path”) toward extrinsic values (e.g. “getting high grades in school, making lots of money, achieving high status, and looking good to others”) in the culture at large and among young people in particular “promoted, in part, by the mass marketing of consumer goods through television and other media” and evidence that “the pursuit of extrinsic goals at the expense of intrinsic goals correlates with anxiety and depression”.  Jean M. Twenge, the leader of the research team, has also suggested, “increased anxiety has resulted from increased social isolation and a reduced sense of community”.  More people now live alone, and people today report having less close confidants than in studies done in the past.

Dr. Gray points to the increasing isolation within families, as well as of families in relation to the wider society.  He states, “Even within families, the sense of responsibility and social connection to one another may have declined, as the sense of individualism has increased….A general shift away from interdependence and toward independence, a rise in social isolation, and a shift toward extrinsic values may also help account for the rise of narcissism.  In fact, narcissism is defined in terms of excessive focus on the self and reduced focus on others’ needs.”  Twenge and her colleagues have also suggested, “an increased tendency for adults to offer excessive praise to children and to tell them how ‘wonderful’ and ‘special’ they are may have fostered narcissism.  Reports by adult narcissists indicating that their parents tended to put them on pedestals and praised them excessively for insignificant accomplishments reinforce the connection between parental praise and narcissism.”

Dr. Gray argues that a strong case can be made that the loss of free play for children is causally linked to the decline in children’s mental health.  His contention is that play helps children to develop intrinsic interests and competencies; learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; learn to regulate their emotions; make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and experience joy.  All these effects serve towards promoting mental health in children.  “In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that result are byproducts, not conscious goals, of the activity.”

A fundamental characteristic of play is that it is directed and controlled by the players themselves.  “In school and in other adult-directed activities, adults decide what children should do and how they should do it, and adults solve the problems that arise.  But in play, children themselves must decide what to do and how, and they must solve their own problems, including those that arise within the play frame (how best to capture the monster, for example) and those that arise from outside of the play frame (perhaps what to do about Mary’s skinned knee or Johnny’s lost shoes).  In play, children learn to control their own lives and to manage the physical and social environment around them.  In play, they also learn and practice many of the skills that are central to life in their culture and thereby develop competence and confidence.”

Dr. Gray notes, “Even casual observations of children playing outdoors confirm that these youngsters, like other young mammals, deliberately put themselves into moderately fear-inducing conditions in play…. If too little fear is induced, the activity is boring; if too much is induced, it becomes no longer play but terror.  Nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right dose, which is why all such play must be self-directed and self-controlled.  Beyond the physically challenging situations, children also put themselves into socially challenging situations in their social play.  All varieties of social play can generate conflict as well as cooperation; and to keep playing, children must learn to control the emotions, especially anger and fear, that such conflict can induce.”

He discusses how play deprivation can lead to a reduced ability to regulate emotions, and thus to psychopathological responses.  “Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders describe losing emotional control as one of their greatest fears.  They are afraid of their own fear, and therefore small degrees of fear generated by mildly threatening situations lead to high degrees of fear generated by the person’s fear of losing control.  Research shows that highly anxious children, as well as highly anxious adults, score low on questionnaires assessing the degree to which they believe that they can control their own fearful reactions to moderately challenging situations.  Other research suggests that an inability to control anger in conflicts with other people, in childhood as well as in adulthood, is part and parcel of narcissists’ inability to make positive, intimate, social connections.”

He notes the intrinsically egalitarian nature of free play.  “A fundamental characteristic of play is that it is voluntary; the players are free to quit at any time, and any player who feels bullied or belittled by the others will quit….If too may leave, the game is over.  Children by nature want to play with other children, but to succeed in doing so, they have to learn and practice the means of getting along with others as equals.”  In the same way, social play combats the feelings of superiority associated with narcissism:  “Parents may put their children on pedestals and tell them how special they are, and teachers may offer excessive praise and high grades for mediocre accomplishments, but children themselves do not overestimate one another in their play.  In play, children do not tolerate airs of superiority or demands for special treatment and special rules.”

Dr. Gray concludes, “Social play makes children happy, and its absence makes them unhappy.  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.”  A research study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter, where participants wore special wristwatches that were programmed to provide signals at random times between 7:30 am and 10:30 pm, when the respondents then filled out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment, consistently demonstrated “children are, on average, happier in social play with friends than they are in any other situation”.

The discussion in Dr. Gray’s article focuses selectively on lack of play as it impacts anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism.  It does not look at other potentially related wider issues such as the rise in childhood obesity, decline in general physical fitness, high rates of ADHD; or at issues such as loss of shared neighbourhood responsibility for children and informal broad-based social community through car-based culture; or the impact of the increasing prevalence of structured, group childcare due to economic and societal pressures for all adults in the community to be in paid employment.  Even so, it makes a strong case for the intrinsic value of free play as a pivotal component of childhood development.