This article has been reproduced, with permission from the University of Exeter, as part of the School’s Public Mental Health Network. The story shines a spotlight on the public mental health research taking place at the University of Exeter, including a study which focuses on the role of adventurous play in supporting the public mental health of children.
Children who spend more time playing adventurously have lower symptoms of anxiety and depression, and were happier over the first Covid-19 lockdown, according to a study led by the University of Exeter.
With funding from a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, awarded to Professor Helen Dodd, the research team surveyed nearly 2,500 parents of children aged 5-11 years. Parents completed questions about their child’s play, their general mental health (pre-Covid) and their mood during the first Covid-19 lockdown. The study asked parents how often their children engaged in play that was “thrilling and exciting”, where they might experience some fear and uncertainty.
The research was carried out with two groups of parents: a group of 427 parents living in Northern Ireland and a nationally representative group of 1919 parents living in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland).
The study, published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, comes at a time when today’s children have fewer opportunities for adventurous play, such as climbing trees, riding bikes, jumping from high surfaces or playing somewhere where they are out of adult sight. The study sought to test theories that adventurous play offers learning opportunities that help build resilience in children, thereby helping to prevent mental health problems.
Researchers found that children who spend more time playing outside had fewer “internalising problems” – characterised as anxiety and depression. Those children were also more positive during the first lockdown. The effects were relatively small, as would be expected given the range of factors that affect children’s mental health. However, results were consistent even after researchers factored in a wide range of demographic variables including child sex, age, parent employment status etc. and parent mental health. The study also found that the effect was more pronounced in children from lower income families than those growing up in higher income households.
Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the of the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: “We’re more concerned than ever about children’s mental health, and our findings highlight that we might be able to help protect children’s mental health by ensuring they have plentiful opportunities for adventurous play. This is really positive because play is free, instinctive and rewarding for children, available to everyone, and doesn’t require special skills. We now urgently need to invest in and protect natural spaces, well-designed parks and adventure playgrounds, to support the mental health of our children.”
On the back of her research, Prof. Dodd launched a new campaign #SummerOfPlay in May 2021. The campaign, coordinated by Prof Dodd along with Save the Children, Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales, Playboard Northern Ireland, and others, appealed for a major national effort to get children playing throughout the summer, in order to bolster wellbeing and reduce the risk of any long-term impact on children’s development as a result of recent lockdowns. The campaign led to the donation of over 100,000 items by businesses to local community groups to support children’s play and over 20,000 people visited the website to download resources and ideas to support children’s play.
Welcoming the findings, Jacqueline O’Loughlin, Chief Executive of PlayBoard NI said: “This research emphasises the importance of adventurous play. Children and young people need freedom and opportunities to encounter challenge and risk in their everyday playful adventures. It is clear from the research findings that playing, taking risks and experiencing excitement outdoors makes a positive contribution to children’s mental health and emotional well-being. The rewards of allowing children to self-regulate and manage challenge in their play are widespread and far-reaching. Adventurous play helps children to build the resilience needed to cope with, and manage stress in challenging circumstances.”
The study is entitled ‘Child’s Play: Examining the Association Between Time Spent Playing and Child Mental Health’, published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development
Prof. Helen Dodd’s work sits within the University of Exeter’s ChYMe (Children and Young People’s Mental Health). The CHYME research collaboration focuses on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, with the aim of developing evidence based policy and practice, to improve the lives of children/young people and the communities around them. The group is currently conducting a number of qualitative, epidemiological, intervention development and evaluation research projects.
Recent completed projects have focused on how schools can support parents in their children’s learning, the development of an ADHD toolkit for schools and a series of studies to explore whether biological mechanisms such as activation of the immune system, puberty or epigenetics have a role in causing self-harm.
Publication highlights include papers exploring; the transition of young people with ADHD from child to adult services; assessing the feasibility of Parent Life-Coaching Intervention to support families who have experienced domestic violence; Pathways between childhood adversity and adolescent self-harm.