Play Dates Help Kids' Long-Term Mental Health, Study Shows

Play dates are fun. But research now confirms they can also help your child's emotional health years later.

Play dates are often considered a quintessential part of childhood. But it turns out they're not just fun and games. A new study by researchers from the University of Cambridge found that pre-school play with friends lowers the risk of mental health problems down the road.

The findings, published last week, support the value of giving children at higher risk for mental health issues opportunities to play with children their age, such as in playgroups run by early childhood specialists.

Researchers analyzed nearly 1,700 children ages three to seven and discovered that children with better peer play activity at the age of three were less likely to show signs of mental health struggles by age seven. These children tended to be less hyperactive, and parents and educators reported fewer instances of emotional or behavioral issues and fights with peers. The findings remained consistent even when researchers looked at subgroups of children at higher risk for mental health issues, including poverty and maternal psychological distress during or immediately after pregnancy.

Vicky Yiran Zhao, a Ph.D. student and first author of the study, emphasized that the quality of play mattered more than the number of play dates.

"Games with peers that encourage children to collaborate, for example, or activities that promote sharing, will have positive knock-on benefits," Zhao said.

Kids playing a spinning game on playground

Games children play in the study include:

  • Imaginative pretend play
  • Goal-directed tasks (such as building a tower from blocks)
  • Collaborative activities like hide-and-seek

Other experts have shared that play, like family game night, can aid social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL teaches numerous skills children will need throughout their lifetime, such as:

  • Self-awareness, or a better understanding of your goals and a link between thoughts and actions, which assists with decision-making.
  • Self-management, or the ability to regulate emotions and impulse control.
  • Responsible decision making, or an understanding of cause-and-effect when making choices.
  • Social awareness, or the ability to build healthy relationships, including with people of other races, genders, and cultures.
  • Relationship skills, such as communication, cooperation, and listening.

Research shows play is essential for children's development. But play dates may also help caregivers find or expand their village because they can meet others in the trenches of raising children of a similar age. It's been a tough few years for parents, with formula shortages and the pandemic. Having people to connect with who can relate can help you feel less alone.

Explore More

Children have less unstructured free time than ever before, but play is beneficial to their mental health and overall well-being. Read more of Parents’ deep dive on how kids play today—plus tips for caregivers to get involved in—and even lead—the fun.

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