The Power of Play: Building Mental Resilience in Children

The mental health of adults, teenagers and even children have been declining in the past years. The statistics that come out of the USA and other countries, like Singapore, are concerning, even scary. Especially girls seem to be at risk: self-reported mental health is going down and self-harm rates are up.

An American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of New York University Stern School of Business writes in a respected American journal the Atlantic Monthly and the Guardian about the current situation and what should be done about it. Based on extensive research, he claims that the rise of social media and lack of free play are in direct correlation with the rise in mental health issues among young people. The research link suggests that the platforms designed to connect us may be contributing to a crisis of loneliness, anxiety, and depression among the youngest members of society.


The global decline in the mental health of children and adolescents

US Teens Suicide Rates, Ages 10-14In the Atlantic Monthly story published on March 13, 2024, Haidt cites studies that show the dramatic rise of mental health issues, loneliness and decline in learning: “ Rates of depression and anxiety in the United States—fairly stable in the 2000s—rose by more than 50 percent in many studies from 2010 to 2019. The suicide rate rose 48 percent for adolescents ages 10 to 19 while, for girls ages 10 to 14, it rose 131 percent.  Loneliness and friendlessness among American teens began to surge around 2012.  Academic achievement went down, too. According to “The Nation’s Report Card,” scores in reading and math began to decline for U.S. Students after 2012, reversing decades of slow but generally steady increase. PISA, the major international measure of educational trends, shows that declines in math, reading, and science happened globally, also beginning in the early 2010s.”

The global decline in the mental health of children and adolescents-1

Similar research results on youth’s rising mental health issues emerge from countries like Singapore where about one in three reported internalising mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, with those aged 14 to 16 reporting more serious symptom. A 2022 Health Behavior in School-aged Children (HBSC) study conducted in collaboration with WHO and Europe showed that the mental health of Finnish girls worsened during the post-COVID period. The study highlighted the negative impact of the pandemic, particularly the increased feelings of loneliness and depression among adolescents, with girls being more affected than boys​.


Decline of play and its effects

In addition to the rise of devices and social media in the lives of children and young adults, Haidt writes about larger changes in American society that started already in the 80s.  One of them relates to the decline of free play.  Haidt and another respected psychologist, Boston College emeritus professor Peter Gray, explain how hundreds of studies on animals and humans show that young mammals want to play, need to play, and end up socially, cognitively, and emotionally impaired when they are deprived of play. Professor Gray’s recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration, when they are free to do so. Professor Lipponen of University Helsinki, a co-founder of HEI Schools, also articulates the concept that "Children do not play to learn, but they learn while they play."

In a world increasingly dominated by structured routines and adult supervision, emeritus professor Peter Gray is not surprised that children’s mental health challenges and anxiety have been on the rise for decades. He says: “We are so overprotecting children, because we are always there to solve their problems for them, they're not developing the sense that they can solve their own problem.” 

The global decline in the mental health of children and adolescents

As mental disorders rose, clinical research done throughout the latter half of the 20th century has shown a decline in locus of control for school-aged children. The term "internal locus of control" refers to a psychological concept about how individuals perceive the causes and effects in their lives. It is part of a broader theory introduced by psychologist Julian Rotter in the 1950s, called locus of control. This theory divides the way people view control over their lives into two types: internal and external. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe that they have a significant influence over the events in their lives. They tend to think that their own actions, decisions, and characteristics determine the outcomes they experience. Someone with a strong external locus of control may think that external factors caused their failure or contributed strongly to their success. People with a strong internal locus of control generally tend to feel more empowered and confident in their ability to influence their future. They are more likely to take responsibility for their actions and are often more motivated to achieve their goals because they believe they directly impact the results.

Peter Gray explains: “How can you have an internal locus of control if you don't have experience of controlling your own life? One thing that psychologists have long known is that if you don't have a strong internal locus of control, that sets you up for anxiety and depression.” He cites many reasons for how we got to this place, including societal shifts and an education system focused on accountability. Gray advocates for the urgent need to reclaim the simple yet profound act of independent play, emphasizing its profound impact on children's long-term well-being.


Thrilling play and why it strengthen children's mental resilience

One crucial aspect of play is risk taking. Children and adolescents must take age-appropriate risks and fail—often—in environments in which failure is not very costly. This is how they extend their abilities, overcome their fears, learn to estimate risk, and learn to cooperate in order to take on larger challenges later. Researchers Hansen Sandseter, Kleppe and Ottesen Kennair talks about how thrilling play might be the most effective kind for overcoming childhood anxieties and building social, emotional, and physical competence in a study published in the International Journal of Play.

HEI Schools play-based approach

Thrilling play allows children to practice not only emotional regulation, but also physical and cultural competences.  Risk taking in this context doesn’t mean that the play is dangerous, but it includes uncertainties of outcomes and it includes elements of thrill and excitement. For example, in sports, risk-taking involves excitement and fun but also the possibility of either winning or losing. For little children, it can mean climbing higher than before in the climbing rack or playing hide and seek, or in general learning to master a physical skill that was previously too difficult and hence thrilling or a little bit scary.  Risk-taking can also mean socio-emotional risk -  getting to know new people or doing something without your parents or caretakers can be nerve wracking, but eventually fulfilling and positive emotion inducing. It can also mean trying new things, food or in general ‘leaving one's comfort zone’, with positive emotional gains.


Let’s bring play back

In the recent Harvard’s Educast podcast, published in February 2024, Professor Gray says: “I think educators need to undo some of the damage they are now doing. Let's do less testing. Let's go back to having full recesses. Let's make lunch an hour. Let's not give homework to little kids. There's no evidence that homework for little kids is valuable, and there's a lot of evidence that it's burning out kids even before they ever get beyond elementary school. Kindergarten used to be a place to play, and it should still be a place to play. And there should be opportunities for play in all the grades. And we've taken so much of that away.”

Another program dedicated to enhancing the mental well-being of young people is Singapore's 'Mental Wellbeing 2023' initiative. This program underscores the importance of starting mental health education and resilience-building from an early age. The Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) has put in place education efforts in schools to build mental well-being and resilience of students, and similar actions are planned for preschoolers. The initiative also offers support to parents. The aim is to equip parents with skills to help their children cope with their emotions, build resilience, and learn strategies to cope with stressors. As part of the initiative, Mr Wong, the Deputy Prime Minister, also talks about changing the mindset around success. “Improving overall mental health also means mindsets have to be changed over what is considered success”, said Mr Wong.


HEI Schools pedagogy as part of the solution

“It's just play, not learning” is a belief that has been proven wrong by research, but still influences the thinking of many. The recent discussion about play’s evolutionary purpose and play’s crucial role in building children’s mental resilience and well-being are applauded by us at HEI Schools.

HEI Schools play-based approach (1)

HEI Schools Pedagogy is built on global research on play and how it's not only an effective method for learning, but something that comes as naturally as breathing to children and motivates them. The HEI Schools approach builds on play and play-based learning method: more structured, teacher-guided playful learning activities and free play where children develop their own play and use their imagination to create their imaginary play worlds. These imaginative play worlds provide a safe space where they can explore new challenges and experience excitement. It's within these settings that children hone their socio-emotional skills and integrate concepts they've picked up from more structured activities or everyday observations, such as accompanying their parents to the grocery store. All this aforementioned learning happens unconsiously and without particular effort from children’s point of view.

HEI Schools teacher training programs, such as the self-study Diploma program, and educational programs, such as the Toolkit Curriculum, give understanding and practical tools for local educators and schools to implement these important play and learning moments.

Inkeri Aimonen-1"Letting children play may be the best thing we can do for them! Let’s give them a chance to build their confidence and mental resilience, which will carry them far in the future. We are glad that at HEI Schools, play is getting the appreciation it deserves and its role in children’s lives is being better understood," says Inkeri Aimonen, CEO of HEI Schools.


Additional information

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the author of the recently published book Anxious Generation: How the great rewiring of childhood is creating an epidemic of mental illness. He has also written other books such as Happiness Hypothesis. His research focuses moral psychology to help people understand each other and to help important social institutions work better.  

Prof Gray is an emeritus professor of psychology at Boston College. Peter Gray has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook, Psychology, (Worth Publishers, 7th edition), which views all of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration, when they are free to do so. He has expanded on these ideas in his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. 



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The Terrible Costs of a Phone-Based Childhood - The Atlantic

Generation Anxiety: smartphones have created a gen Z mental health crisis – but there are ways to fix it | Books | The Guardian

The Terrible Costs of a Phone-Based Childhood - The Atlantic

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It Sure Looks Like Phones Are Making Students Dumber

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Suomalaisten tyttöjen mielenterveys heikkeni COVID-19-pandemian aikana

Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence - The Journal of Pediatrics