Children need expanded opportunities for independence to support their mental well-being

Gray, P. ., Lancy, D. F., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2023). Decline in independent activity as a cause of decline in children’s mental well-being: Summary of the evidence. The Journal of Pediatrics, 260.

Research points to steady declines in children’s mental health over the last five to six decades. This paper summarizes the evidence of a decline in children’s independent activities and a simultaneous decline in mental health, while also considering the effects of independent activity on both immediate happiness and long-term psychological resilience. The authors contend that “a primary cause of the rise in mental disorders is a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults.”

The review details how children, once viewed as “competent, responsible, and resilient,” are increasingly perceived as needing adult oversight and protection. As a result, “children’s freedom to engage in activities that involve some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults” has widely decreased. Studies have documented the decline of both free play, especially outdoor play, and children’s independence beginning in the 1960s. Over the same decades, children’s mental well-being has drastically deteriorated. Evidence of ailing mental health includes studies which point to alarming increases in anxiety and depression, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, as well as suicide and suicidal thoughts.

Play is an independent activity that immediately improves mental well-being, according to the literature. Play that occurs away from adult supervision and is child-initiated and directed is most valued by children. Other independent activities, such as walking or cycling to school, are also positively correlated with measures of psychological well-being children. “Beyond promoting immediate mental well-being, children’s independent activity also may help build mental capacities and attitudes that foster future well-being.” The development of a strong internal locus of control, and associated mental health benefits, may be supported by play and other independent activities in which children engage in decision-making and problem-solving. Free play during childhood has been correlated with executive functioning, emotional control and self-regulation. Free and adventurous play during childhood is also linked to better overall psychological health in adulthood. Viewed through the perspective of self-determination theory, play fills children’s psychological needs for autonomy, supporting mental well-being and happiness. Additionally, from an evolutionary perspective, declines in children’s independent activity and mental well-being demonstrate a “contrast between the ancestral conditions in which children’s innate tendencies and needs would have evolved and the conditions provided for children’s development today.”

The review converges findings from a wide variety of sources that support the role of independent activities in children’s immediate and future mental well-being. The authors conclude that while a decline in opportunities for independent activity is possibly a major cause of the decline in young people’s mental well-being over decades, it is not the only cause. However, to support mental well-being, children “need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life, which are signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable.” The authors recommend that pediatricians talk with parents about their children’s opportunities for independent, confidence-building activities, and support policies and programs that expand children’s opportunities for independence.

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