Is there a link between the decline of free play and mental issues?

Last month Peter Gray, David Lancy and David Bjorklund published a commentary in The Journal of Pediatrics, claiming that “Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence”.

I must admit I first started reading before checking who wrote it, but it didn’t take long to guess that the first author was Peter Gray. The psychologist has been an avid defender of free play for decades. He also strongly supports the Sudbury school approach with a strong emphasis on freedom.

It’s important to note that the authors do see the influence in its correct proportions:

We are not suggesting that a decline in opportunities for independent activity is the sole cause of the decline in young people’s mental wellbeing over decades, only that it is a cause, possibly a major cause.

While I can see a possible link, I wondered how the authors would prove the causal relationship, as this is not easy to establish. The truth is, they don’t:

What we have described so far is a correlation over decades between declines in children’s independent activity and mental wellbeing. Correlation, of course, does not prove causation, but is a first step in hypothesizing causation. Through most of the rest of this commentary we present converging evidence, from a wide variety of sources, supporting this causal hypothesis.

And this becomes even more clear in the discussion section:

We have provided here evidence from a wide variety of sources that independent activities promote children’s immediate and future mental wellbeing. Most of the studies are necessarily correlational and cannot, by themselves, prove causal direction. The power of the argument lies in the converging findings from such a large variety of studies.

We have reviewed research showing correlations between children’s independent activity and mental wellbeing over decades, across cultures, across neighborhoods, across context (school vs. out of school), across parenting styles, and across immediate conditions of control vs freedom. It is reasonable to suggest that many of these correlations involve two-way causation, with increased freedom promoting increased wellbeing and increased wellbeing promoting increased freedom, but it would be hard to argue that this is true for all of them (some were experimental in design) or that the reverse causal direction accounts for the bulk of the findings. Moreover, as we have shown, the findings are consistent with expectations from Self-Determination Theory and from anthropological research supporting the idea of an evolutionary mismatch between the conditions in which children’s natural tendencies would likely have evolved and conditions today.

So one should read the article as it is: a commentary. Something worth further discussion and for sure further research.

I do want to share some of the points of their conclusion, not to state that it’s a sure thing, but to give food for thought:

All in all, the evidence convinces us that the decline in children’s independent activity and, hence, in mental wellbeing is a national and international health crisis and should be treated as such. Unlike other crises, such as the COVID epidemic, it has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it. Some young parents are unaware that five or six decades ago, when their own parents were children, those as young as 5 or 6 were largely free to explore and play away from direct adult oversight, and children and teens suffered far less than they do today from anxiety and depression. Moreover, unlike other health crises, this one is not the result of a malignant virus or unsanitary conditions but is the result of good intentions carried too far—intentions to protect children and provide what many believed to be better (interpreted as more) schooling, both in and out of actual schools.

Parents today are regularly subject to messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school. But they hear little of the countervailing messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they 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. They need to feel they can deal effectively with the real world, not just the world of school. Even parents who recognize that their children are capable of and would benefit from more independence, and would not be seriously endangered, are often reluctant to allow it because of realistic fears that they might be accused of negligence by neighbors or, worse, by police and child protective services.

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