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Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence

Decline in Independent Activity, p
In Press. Accepted for Publication, Feb. 2023, by Journal of Pediatrics. This is the accepted
manuscript, but the published article may be changed somewhat in final editing.
Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing:
Summary of the Evidence
Peter Graya, PhD, David F. Lancyb, PhD, David F. Bjorklundc, PhD
Affiliations: a Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience, Boston College; bDept. of Anthropology,
Utah State University; cDept. of Psychology, Florida Atlantic University
Address correspondence to: Peter Gray, 17 Dean St., Millis, MA, 02054,
It is no secret that rates of anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens in the
United States are at an all-time high. Recognizing this, the American Academy of Pediatrics,
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association
issued, in 2021, a joint statement to the Biden administration that child and adolescent mental
health be declared a “national emergency.1
Although most current discussions of the decline in youth mental health emphasize that
which has occurred over the past ten to fifteen years, research indicates that the decline has been
continuous over at least the last five or six decades.2,3 Although a variety of causes of this decline
have been proposed by researchers and practitioners (some discussed near the end of this
commentary), our focus herein is on a possible cause that we believe has been insufficiently
researched, discussed, and taken into account by health practitioners and policy makers.
Our thesis is 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. Such independent activities may promote mental
wellbeing through both immediate effects, as a direct source of satisfaction, and long-term
effects, by building mental characteristics that provide a foundation for dealing effectively with
the stresses of life.
We develop the thesis by summarizing evidence for, respectively, (a) a large decline over
decades in children’s opportunities for independent activity; (b) a large decline over the same
decades in young people’s mental health; (c) effects of independent activity on children’s
immediate happiness; and (d) effects of independent activity in building long-term psychological
resilience. Then we discuss the relation of independent activity to wellbeing from the
perspectives of self-determination theory and evolutionary mismatch. In two final sections, we
briefly review the evidence cited, comment on some other putative causes of declining mental
health in youth, and offer some suggestions for pediatric practice. Unless otherwise noted or
obvious, we use the word “children” throughout this article to refer to people under age 18.
Decline in Children’s Opportunities for Independent Activity
Those of us old enough to have been children in the 1970s or earlier know from experience that
children then had far more freedom to roam, play, and engage in various activities independently
of adults than do children today. Research has confirmed that our memories are not distorted.
For example, Rutherford analyzed hundreds of articles and advice columns about
childrearing that appeared in popular magazines from the early 20th century on.4 She found that
Decline in Independent Activity, p
earlier articles portrayed a world where children spent much time with other children away from
adults, walked or biked to school alone or with friends from as young as age 5, contributed
meaningfully through chores to the household economy, and by age 11 or 12 often had part-time
jobs, such as babysitting and paper routes performed without direct adult oversight. Over time,
however, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1980s, the implicit understanding shifted
from that of children as competent, responsible, and resilient to the opposite, as advice focused
increasingly on children’s needs for supervision and protection.4 Rutherford noted, as have other
reviewers,5 that in some respectssuch as freedom to choose what they wear or eatchildren
have gained autonomy over the decades. What has declined specifically is children’s freedom to
engage in activities that involve some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from
Books on the history of childhood in America have likewise documented the decline of
both free play and children’s independent, responsible contributions to family and community.
Chudacoff describes the first half of the 20th century as “the golden age of unstructured play” and
shows how children’s free play, especially outdoors, declined from about 1960 on.6 Mintz
supports the premises that “contemporary children are more regimented and constrained than
ever before” and have “fewer socially valued ways to contribute to their family’s well-being or
to participate in community life.”7 In systematic surveys, parents have reported that their
children play independently outdoors far less than they themselves did as children and that they
limit their children’s freedom outdoors largely because of fears of crime and traffic.8,9,10
Considerable research, mostly in Europe, has focused on children’s independent mobility
(CIM), defined as children’s freedom to travel in their neighborhood or city without adult
accompaniment. That research has revealed significant declines in CIM, especially between 1970
and 1990, but also some large national differences. For example, surveys regarding the
“licenses” (permissions) parents grant to their elementary school children revealed that in
England, license to walk home alone from school dropped from 86% in 1971 to 35% in 1990 and
25% in 2010; and license to use public buses alone dropped from 48% in 1971 to 15% in 1990 to
12% in 2010.11 In another study, comparing CIM in 16 different countries (US not included),
conducted from 2010 to 2012, Finland stood out as allowing children the greatest freedom of
movement.12 The authors wrote: “At age 7, a majority of Finnish children can already travel to
places within walking distance or cycle to places alone; by age 8 a majority can cross main
roads, travel home from school and go out after dark alone, by age 9 a majority can cycle on
main roads alone, and by age 10 a majority can travel on local buses alone. Although we have
found no similar studies of parental permissions for US children, other data indicate that the US
is more like the UK concerning children’s independent mobility than like Finland. For example,
National Personal Transportation Surveys revealed that only 12.7% walked or biked to school in
2009 compared with 47.7% in 1969.13
Another constraint on independent activity derives from the increased time children must
spend in school and on schoolwork at home. Between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the
school year in the US increased by five weeks.14 Homework, which was once rare or nonexistent
in elementary school, is now common even in kindergarten. One study revealed that the average
amount of time that US school children, ages 6-8, spent at school plus school homework
increased by 11.4 hours per week between 1981 and 2003, equivalent to adding a day and half to
an adult’s work week.15 Increased school time was often accompanied by decreased recess. By
2014, the average time spent in recess (including any recess associated with the lunch period) for
elementary schools was just 26.9 minutes a day, and some schools had no recess at all.16
Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing
Decline in Independent Activity, p
Over the same decades that children’s opportunities for independent activity have declined
greatly, so has children’s mental health. One line of evidence comes from cross-temporal meta-
analyses of scores on clinical assessment questionnaires that were administered to normative or
quasi-normative groups of young people in unchanged form over decades. For example, one
such analysis revealed that average scores on the Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale, for children
mostly ages 9-11, increased by a full standard deviation between 1956 and the late 1980s.17 A
change this large means that roughly 85% of children by the late 1980s were more anxious than
the average child in 1956. A change of roughly this same magnitude was found for depression in
high school students from 1950 to 2002, as assessed by the Depression scale of the MMPI-A.18
Looking at the scores another way, Twenge and her colleagues found that over the last half of the
20th century, the percentage of young people who scored above the level that generally signifies
an anxiety or depressive disorder, by current DSM criteria, increased five- to eight-fold.18
More recent studies using a variety of measures have shown continued increases in
children’s anxiety and depression in the early 21st century.19,20 One survey, the Youth Risk
Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS), conducted annually by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC), revealed that by 2019, 36.7% of high school students ages 14-18 reported
persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness over the past year.19
Perhaps the most compelling and disturbing evidence comes from studies of suicide and
suicidal thoughts. Data compiled by the CDC indicate that the rate of suicide among children
under age 15 rose 3.5-fold between 1950 and 2005 and by another 2.4-fold between 2005 and
2020.21,22 No other age group showed increases nearly this large. By 2019, suicide was the
second leading cause of death for children from age 10 through 15, behind only unintentional
injury.22 Moreover, the 2019 YRBS survey revealed that during the previous year 18.8% of US
high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, 15.7% made a suicide plan, 8.9%
attempted suicide one or more times, and 2.5% made a suicide attempt requiring medical
treatment.19 We are clearly experiencing an epidemic of psychopathology among young people.
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.
Immediate Effects of Independent Activity on Mental Wellbeing
A major category of independent activity, especially for young children, is play. Research, as
well as everyday observation, indicates that play is a direct source of children’s happiness. In one
study, for example, 6-8-year-olds were asked to depict activities that made them happy, with the
result that almost all the depicted activities were identified as play.23 Reviews, including one that
is part of an official statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics,24 have summarized
evidence for the value of play in promoting children’s mental wellbeing. Similarly, a recent
review of research on the effects of adding more recess time in elementary schools revealed
consistent findings of improved social and emotional wellbeing with no loss and sometimes gain
in academic performance.25 Less well known and discussed, however, is evidence that children’s
play-like activity appears to be most satisfying and to fit most closely with children’s own
concept of play when it occurs away from adult oversight and intervention.
Part of the definition of play favored by many if not most play researchers, is that it is
activity initiated and directed by the players themselves, not by an outside authority.26 This also
appears to be a major part of children’s concept of play. A review of 12 studies in which young
Decline in Independent Activity, p
children were interviewed about what is or isn’t play, concluded that children understood play to
be an activity “that took place with other children with little or no involvement from adults.”27 In
one study, for example, kindergarteners who were shown pictures of children engaged in
activities that looked fun, generally identified the activity as play only if no adult appeared in the
picture.28 They apparently assumed that if an adult was present, the adult was controlling the
activity, so it wasn’t play.
In another study, young children were induced to engage in an activity under one of two
conditions.29 In the “like play” condition the activity was offered as a choice and no adult was
nearby during the activity. In the “not like play” condition, the children were given no choice
about participation, and an adult was directly present during the activity. The result was that
those in the “like play” condition showed significantly more evidence of engagement and
happiness (for examples, they leaned into the activity more and smiled more) than those in the
“not like play” condition. Much of what adults call “play” in schools, including closely
supervised recesses, fits the pattern that in this study would be the “not like play” condition.
Observational studies in natural settings have likewise documented an inhibiting effect of
the presence of adults on children’s play.30 In one, researchers observed children (including
teens) on multiple occasions in 20 different parks in Durham, NC.31 They found, after controlling
for other variables (such as age and number of children in the group), that children without an
adult caregiver obviously present were far more likely to be involved in vigorous play than
children who were being monitored by an adult.
Even more telling is a study conducted in Zurich, Switzerland, in the early 1990s that
compared 5-year-olds living in neighborhoods where children of that age were still allowed to
play unsupervised outdoors to 5-year-olds living in economically similar neighborhoods where,
because of traffic, such freedom was denied.32 Parents in the latter group were much more likely
than those in the former to take their children to parks, where they could play under parental
supervision. The main findings were that those who could play freely in neighborhoods spent, on
average, twice as much time outdoors, were much more active while outdoors, had more than
twice as many friends, and had better motor and social skills than those deprived of such play.
The researcher concluded further that trips to the park with parents failed to compensate for lost
neighborhood freedom because (a) parents did not have patience or time to stay long at the park,
so play was constricted in time; (b) parental monitoring reduced children’s freedom to play in
vigorous, challenging, risky ways; (c) there were usually no consistent play groups at parks, so
opportunities for collaborative play among friends were reduced; and (d) the parks afforded
fewer ways of playing than the neighborhoods because of the greater variety of playthings in
neighborhoods, where children could bring out equipment from their homes.
Beyond play, other forms of independent activity also appear to promote young people’s
immediate wellbeing. For example, an Australian study revealed that active travel to school
(walking, cycling, or scootering) correlated positively with a measure of psychological wellbeing
in primary school children.33 Another study, also in Australia, concluded that high-school
students who held part-time jobs felt more independent and happier, overall, than those without
such jobs.34 These feelings were reported to derive not just from the money earned, but also from
improvements in their social lives and enjoyment of the work itself. A recent article in Nature
summarized evidence that independent adventures and active contributions to the welfare of the
family or community increase mental wellbeing in teens.35
Other research has compared indices of stress and psychopathology in students during the
school year with those during summer vacation, when most students have more opportunity for
independent activity. A 2014 study of “Stress in America,” conducted by the American
Psychological Association, found that teenagers in school were the most stressed people in the
Decline in Independent Activity, p
United States, and 83% of them attributed their stress at least partly, if not fully, to school.36
When the survey was conducted during summer vacation, the percentage reporting recent severe
stress was cut in half compared with when school was in session. Other research reveals that for
young people of school age, but for no other age group, the rates of emergency mental health
admissions, attempted suicides, and actual suicides are roughly twice as high during weeks when
school is in session compared with vacation weeks.37,38,39
Long-Term Effects of Independent Activity on Mental Wellbeing
Beyond promoting immediate mental wellbeing, children’s independent activity may also help
build mental capacities and attitudes that foster future wellbeing. One way of thinking about this
involves the concept of internal versus external locus of control (LOC). Internal LOC refers to a
person’s tendency to believe they have control over their life and can solve problems as they
arise, in contrast to external LOC, which is a tendency to believe their experiences are ruled by
circumstances beyond their control. Many research studies, mostly cross-sectional but some
longitudinal, have shown that a low internal LOC, assessed by a standard questionnaire, is highly
predictive of anxiety and/or depression in both children and adults.40,41,42,43,44 In addition to
documenting dramatically increased anxiety and depression among young people over the last
four decades of the 20th century, Twenge and her colleagues also documented a dramatic decline
in internal LOC among them over that same period.45 Logically, it seems likely that a decline in
internal LOC was a mediating cause of the decline in mental wellbeing.
It also seems likely that play and other independent activities, where young people must
make their own decisions and solve their own problems, would promote the development of a
strong internal LOC. If children have little experience taking control of their own lives, they are
unlikely to develop a strong sense that they can exert such control. And so, we have a cause-
effect sequence that plausibly contributes to the relationship between children’s independent
activity and their mental well-being: Experiences of having control internal LOC mental
well-being.2 The only study we know of directly assessing the relationship between children’s
experiences and LOC is one in which young children whose mothers were more autonomy
supportive (as assessed by observing them as their child worked on a problem-solving task)
scored higher on internal LOC than did children whose mothers were more controlling or
provided unsolicited help.46
Several studies have examined relationships between the amount of time young children
have for self-directed activities at home and psychological characteristics predictive of future
wellbeing. These have revealed significant positive correlations between amount of self-
structured time (largely involving free play) and (a) scores on two different measures of
executive functioning;47,48 (b) indices of emotional control and social ability;49 and (c) scores,
two years later, on a measure of self-regulation.50 There is also evidence that risky play, where
children deliberately put themselves in moderately frightening situations (such as climbing high
into a tree) helps protect against the development of phobias and reduces future anxiety by
increasing the person’s confidence that they can deal effectively with emergencies.30,51
Studies with adults involving retrospections about their childhood experiences provide
another avenue of support for the idea that early independent activity promotes later wellbeing.
In one such study, those who reported much free and adventurous play in their elementary school
years were assessed as having more social success, higher self-esteem, and better overall
psychological and physical health in adulthood than those who reported less such play.52 In
another very similar study, amount of reported free play in childhood correlated positively with
measures of social success and goal flexibility (ability to adapt successfully to changes in life
Decline in Independent Activity, p
conditions) in adulthood.53 Also relevant here are studies in which adults (usually college
students) rated the degree to which their parents were overprotective and overcontrolling (a style
that would reduce opportunity for independent activity) and were also assessed for their current
levels of anxiety and depression. A systematic review of such studies revealed, overall, positive
correlations between the controlling, overprotective parenting style and the measures of anxiety
and depression.54
The Problem from the Perspective of Self-Determination Theory
A useful perspective for thinking about the relation between independent activity and mental
wellbeing is that of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a rapidly growing domain of
psychological research and theory pioneered by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory’s
fundamental premise is that people of all ages perform better and live happier, more satisfying
lives when they experience themselves as living in accordance with their own internal desires
and decisions rather than being driven from outside sources by rewards, punishments, and
demands from others. Hundreds of studies support this premise and elaborate on it.55,56
Much research within SDT has focused on the psychological foundations that enable self-
determination. This has resulted in a sub-theory of SDT referred to as Basic Psychological Needs
Theory (BPNT), which posits that a prerequisite for a healthy sense of self-determination and,
hence, for mental wellbeing, is the fulfillment of three basic psychological needs: those for
autonomy, competence, and relatedness.55 The logic of the theory is straightforward. To feel in
charge of one’s life, one must feel free to choose one’s own paths (autonomy); feel sufficiently
skilled to pursue those paths (competence); and have friends and colleagues for support,
including emotional support (relatedness).
Empirical evidence for BPNT derives from dozens of studies, across cultures and with
children as well as adults, showing that fulfillment of these basic needs is highly predictive of
mental wellbeing and success in various life pursuits.57 Research with children has supported the
view that the influence of autonomy-supportive parenting on mental wellbeing is mediated by
increases in self-perceived autonomy, competence, and relatedness.58,59 Again, this is consistent
with what we would expect logically. Play and other self-directed activities are, by definition,
autonomous; such activities build skills in endeavors that the children care about, so they
promote competence; and such activities are a primary means by which children make friends, so
they support relatedness.
The Problem from an Evolutionary Perspective
Another way to understand the link between the decline in children’s independent activity and
decline in their mental wellbeing involves the concept of evolutionary mismatch, the 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.60 A survey of hundreds of
ethnographic accounts of children in indigenous communities, which are likely more similar to
the communities of our ancestors than are our developed communities, revealed that normal
childhood in such communities always entailed much independent activity, personal
responsibility, and self-initiated exploration and learning.61
Children’s freedom to travel independently in such communities is endemic to the roles
they are expected to play. Toddlers, after weaning, are typically passed on to regular care by
older siblings and cousins, who bring them along in their own active and geographically wide-
ranging play. A toddler’s introductions to the animal corrals, fields, nearby river, forest, and
Decline in Independent Activity, p
whole village commonly occur under the eye of a sibling caregiver, not an adult. Indigenous
pedagogy is driven by the child’s eagerness to acquire useful skills and become an integral part
of the community, abetted by the adults’ granting the child full access to the community.62
Parents acknowledge the risks in such hands-off childrearing, but see it is as essential to the
child’s education.63As Hewlett noted regarding one foraging society, “Aka mothers express
regret when their infants cut themselves while playing with knives, but they don’t want to
restrain their exploration and learning.64
In many indigenous societies, children as young as age 5 are expected to contribute to the
domestic economy and are eager to do so, and there is widespread acknowledgment by observers
that children’s psychological well-being is enhanced by these opportunities.65,66.67 Children are
typically assigned chores consistent with their level of development. Some of the early
assignments involve running errands, to ever greater distances. The errand-runners will need to
navigate, and thereby learn about, their own neighborhood, the larger community, and the
surrounding bush (to fetch water, firewood, and edible and medicinal plants).
Assuming that conditions in indigenous groups today are similar to ways of living that
predominated throughout human biological history, it is no wonder that natural selection would
have created in children strong drives to become involved in the real activities of the community,
to learn through direct experience, and to seek increasing levels of trust and independence as
they grow, beginning in early childhood. Decades ago, in the United States and other modern
nations, children still had reasonable opportunities to satisfy such drives, but that has changed as
children have become ever-more-closely monitored and supervised by adults. Children have
remarkable capacities to adapt to prevailing conditions, but for many this may occur at
considerable psychological cost, including increased anxiety, depression, and a reduced sense of
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.
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. The decline in mental wellbeing may have resulted from a variety of
social changes, some of which are intertwined with the decline in independent activity. As noted
earlier, students themselves report that their schooling experiences are a major cause of their
psychological distress.36 That is further supported by evidence that teens in what have been
Decline in Independent Activity, p
labeled “high achievement schools,” where pressure for high test scores and ultimate acceptance
into elite colleges is especially high, suffer from anxiety and depression at higher levels than is
true for teens in schools where such pressures are lower.68,69 The increase in school time and
pressure over decades may have impacted mental health not just by detracting from time and
opportunity for independent activities but also because fear of academic failure, or fear of
insufficient achievement, is a direct source of distress.69
It is also possible that societal changes in childcare other than constraints on children’s
independent activity may have contributed to declines in mental wellbeing. From the perspective
of evolutionary mismatch, it is noteworthy that childcare among hunter-gatherers included not
only much freedom for independent activity as children grew beyond toddlerhood, but also
highly intensive caregiving of infants and toddlers, which included almost continuous holding,
immediate responsiveness to signs of distress, and prolonged breastfeeding on demand in a
community of caretakers, beyond just the mother.70 There is evidence that departures from such
care in modern societies can, through epigenetic mechanisms, alter physiological processes in
ways that predispose the child for heightened reactions to stressors and mental disorders
throughout life, depending on the degree of such departures.71,72,73 The question of whether such
departures have increased over the decades considered in this article is worthy of study.
Much recent discussion of young people’s mental health has focused on the role of
increased use of digital technologies, especially involvement with social media. However,
systematic reviews of research into this have provided little support for the contention that either
total screen time or time involved with social media is a major cause of, or even correlate of,
declining mental health. One systematic review concluded that research on links between digital
technology use and teens’ mental health “has generated a mix of often conflicting small positive,
negative and null associations” (Odgers & Jensen, 2020).74 Another, a “review of reviews”
concluded that “the association between digital technology use, or social media use in particular,
and psychological well-being is, on average, negative but very small” and noted some evidence,
from longitudinal research, that negative correlations may result from declining mental health
leading to more social media use rather than the reverse (Orben, 2020).75
Implications for Pediatric Practice
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 farintentions 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.76 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
Decline in Independent Activity, p
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.77,78
What can pediatricians do to ameliorate this crisis? They might talk with parents about
their children’s opportunities for independent, confidence-building activities. They might present
an overview of the findings of studies such as those described in this report, explain concepts
such as locus of control and basic psychological needs, and ask parents about their children’s
independent activities and the constraints and fears that limit those freedoms. They might
brainstorm with parents about how to overcome the constraints and dampen the fears, given the
child’s maturity, the neighborhood, and the family’s living conditions. Parents in some
neighborhoods have worked together to create places and times where children can play freely
with other children, with an adult present just for safety, not to manage the play.79
Pediatricians might also talk with parents about how to teach children to be safe in their
independent activitieshow to cross streets, the safety rules for bicycling, the advantages of
moving about with siblings or friends rather than alone (there is safety in numbers), how to ask
for help when needed, and the likeas an alternative to depriving them of such activities.
Children as young as 5 or 6 are capable of understanding and abiding by such rules and even
developing new safety rules of their own.
At the broader societal level, pediatricians might bring their stature and knowledge to
bear in discussions with educators, social workers, city planners, legislators, and community
leaders about policies and programs that limit or expand children’s opportunities for independent
activities. The nonprofit organization Let Grow has been working effectively for several years,
with some success, to bring free play and other independent adventures into public schools, to
alter state laws to give parents more freedom to make their own reasoned judgments about what
is safe for their children, and to provide a catalog for parents and teachers of ways and reasons to
allow children more independence.80 (For full disclosure, we note that the lead author of this
article is on the board of directors of Let Grow.) Pediatricians might introduce this resource as
well as others to policy makers and parents.
The authors thank Michael Yogman, MD, and Diane Redleaf, Esq, for their helpful comments on
an early draft. Neither has funding related to this work, but Redleaf serves as legal counsel for
Let Grow).
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... Societal perceptions of safety and risk are implicated in this decline (Lee et al., 2015). Since the 1960's, historians have charted a shift in perceptions away from children being seen as competent, responsible, and resilient, to contemporary attitudes, which emphasize the need for supervision and protection (Chudacoff, 2007;Gray et al., 2023). This is despite children in the western world having high levels of personal safety relative to previous generations (Chudacoff, 2007;Furedi, 2006;Gray, 2011). ...
... This is despite children in the western world having high levels of personal safety relative to previous generations (Chudacoff, 2007;Furedi, 2006;Gray, 2011). A sharp decline in children's opportunity for adventurous or risky play, defined as "thrilling and exciting forms of physical play that involve uncertainty and a risk of physical injury" (Sandseter, 2010, p.22), has also been documented (Gray et al., 2023). Activities such as climbing trees, play-fighting, and playing independently outdoors, particularly in nature, are becoming increasingly rare (Holt et al., 2015;Lee et al., 2015;Sandseter et al., 2016), and replaced with more structured, supervised, safer, and in many cases, indoor activities (Jelleyman et al., 2019;Watchman et al., 2017). ...
... Paediatric psychologists contend excessive attempts to keep children safe and minimize injury risk are the result of 'good intentions carried too far' and may disadvantage children over the longer term (Gray et al., 2023;Little et al., 2008). Not only do these intentions constrain children's ability to acquire the skills they need to assess and manage risks on their own, but opportunities to engage in adventurous play outdoors and in nature can also build independence, resilience, emotional regulation skills and contribute to mental wellbeing (Gray et al., 2023;Sandseter et al., 2023;Sharma-Brymer et al., 2016). ...
Background: Children naturally seek risk in play and adventurous play outdoors confers many benefits, including the potential to increase moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). This study aimed to investigate the relationship between parent attitudes to risk and injury, and their elementary school-aged child's daily adventurous play and MVPA. Methods: A panel sample of 645 Australian parents/guardians completed an online survey consisting of several validated measures of risk and injury attitudes, and physical activity and play behaviour. Data were analysed via descriptive statistics, univariate and multivariable regressions using Stata 17. A series of exploratory univariate logistic regressions were conducted, followed by a series of multivariable logistic regressions fitted to test the association between parent risk and injury attitudes and (i) children's MVPA, (ii) active play and (iii) adventurous play, while adjusting for socio-demographic factors. Results: Most adult participants (81%) were female. The mean age of the child participants (53% male) was 8.6 years (SD = 2.4). On average, parents were positive about children's engagement with risk, however, 78% of parents had low tolerance of risk when presented with specific play scenarios, and attitudes towards injuries varied, with mothers more concerned than fathers. After adjusting for confounders, children with parents who were tolerant of risk in play were more likely to meet the MVPA guideline of ≥60 min daily (OR 2.86, CI: 1.41, 5.82, p < 0.004) and spend more time playing adventurously (OR 3.03, CI: 1.82, 5.06, p < 0.001). Positive associations for MVPA and adventurous play were observed across all models examining parent attitudes to risk and injury. Younger children engaged in more play and physical activity, however, more positive parent attitudes appeared to moderate the age-related influences. Conclusions: We found a divergence between the outcomes parents desire for their children through engagement with risk and the play activities they are comfortable with in practice. Parent attitudes to risk and injury are potentially modifiable factors that may increase children's affordances for adventurous play and physical activity. Parent education interventions that provide practical approaches to address injury concerns and support children's risk-taking in play outdoors are recommended.
... Moreover, there are many positive benefits to independence. By the same token, children who have little opportunity for independence may lag in developing the essential skills they need to succeed in life and experience more mental health challenges (Gray et al., 2023). For example, children need opportunities for exploration, unsupervised play, and selfdiscovery to learn how to self-regulate, make Social Policy Report | 19 ...
... decisions, and solve problems. While there is a link between parental inattention and negative outcomes (Andrews et al., 2021;Lawrence et al., 2015), there is also emerging research showing a relationship between a lack of childhood independence and negative outcomes (Gray, 2011;Gray et al., 2023). By contrast, children demonstrate positive outcomes when their parents have a good working knowledge of what their children are able to do and let them do it (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). ...
... Instead, through observations of other cultural practices, Doucleff (2021) learned that less parental intervention, led to greater confidence, happiness, helpfulness, and fewer tantrums in the children she observed. Gray et al. (2023) review the research on the relationship between participation in independent activities and children's positive mental health outcomes. Research shows that children have more anxiety and depression when they feel they have little control over their lives (i.e., a lower internal locus of control) (Gray et al., 2023). ...
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Policies and programs designed to serve children and families are sometimes misaligned with developmental science research. Broad child neglect reporting laws, first adopted bythe United States in 1974, have led to families being prosecuted by child protection authorities for allowing children to participate in everyday age-appropriate activities unsupervised. In this report we describe the challenges of defining child neglect and outline the current landscape of neglect laws in the United States. We then provide a broad overview of some ofthe developmental milestones children need to reach to participate in unsupervised activitiesand the benefits of independent activities on child development. Children can often accomplish tasks at a much younger age than law, parents, and caregivers in the U.S. believe. We then turn to the literature from across the world and argue that culture, not innate ability, drives much of the variation in the age at which children can do things on their own. Finally, we make recommendations to parents, caregivers, legislators, advocates, and developmental scientists to better align practice with research. This is a social justice issue that should resonate across party, racial, and class lines. Developmental scientists are needed as advocates and advisors on policies impacting children and families, especially child neglect laws.
... The child's adjustment is also affected by their community stability and social services, which require them to consider the importance of the school's educational activities in supporting the well-being of the children. Moreover, when free play outdoors is diminished, this can also be an aggravating factor for mental distress (Gray, Lancy and Bjorklund, 2023). As educators and researchers, we do not have the possibility to stop the war, but we can imagine different ways to support Ukrainian educators, researchers, and, most importantly, Ukrainian children through playful activities. ...
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Creativity in playful creative problem-solving (CPS) is influenced by the emotional state of the learner-player. Inthis study, we evaluated how stressful situations (such as conditions of war) can impact divergent thinking (DT) in CPS. Toevaluate divergent thinking, the main components of which are fluency, flexibility, and originality, creativity researchers havedeveloped the Alternative Uses Test (AUT), where participants are asked to write about different uses of familiar objects ina limited amount of time. In educational robotics, DT has been operationalized with the same components of fluency,flexibility, and originality based on the diverse configurations made by the learner-players. In the present research, weengaged participants in a playful activity with modular robotics to evaluate divergent thinking. Participants engaged in theCreaCube task are Ukrainians. We recruited two groups of participants: Ukrainian refugees living in France and participantsstaying in Kyiv (Ukraine). These participants are experiencing a stressful situation due to the daily war events in Kyiv duringthe development of this study (missile attacks, power and heating restrictions, air sirens, and limited communication withpartners on the frontlines). By comparing these two groups of learner-players in the CreaCube task, we aim to identify howstressful situations affect divergent thinking. The preliminary results showed that flexibility and originality as DT componentsof the participants from Kyiv in the first experiment are significantly higher than those of the refugee participants based inFrance. This may indicate that the participants from Kyiv, having been in stressful situations (war conditions) for almost ayear, have developed more original ideas (originality component) and different ideas (flexibility component), which could beexplained by the daily problem-solving activity under war constraints. Playful situations under war conditions permitted theKyiv participants to distract themselves from the current situation and show originality in thinking better than participantsplaying in France who were not in stressful situations. This may indicate that wartime constraints have engaged theparticipants in better strategies for generating novel ideas, but it also indicates that the interest in game activities has apositive effect on DT even in stressful situations for the participants.
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The purpose of this article is to critically examine the use of worksheets in STEM classrooms from a whole-child, constructivist perspective. Teachers continue to rely on worksheets for STEM lessons, rather than engaging children in experiential learning practices. The authors argue that teachers must reexamine the role of worksheets in their classrooms and foster activities that deepen student understandings, cater to development, provide for differentiation, and provide engaging real-world/relevant experiences. With a focus on STEM education, the authors provide appropriate child-centered practices for educators to utilize as an alternative to worksheets. Some suggestions include inquiry-based activities that foster student interests, integrated real-world activities, authentic assessments, centers, projects, and play in STEM.
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Childhood experiences of early life stress and adversity can lead to long-term detrimental outcomes across the lifespan. Recent evidence suggests avoiding stressors is not enough for species-typical development. Nurturing and responsive care are needed to both buffer adverse experiences as well as promote healthy development, but little is known regarding the interaction between species-typical environmental support in childhood, Evolved Developmental Niche history (EDN-history), and adversity on physiological regulation in adult women. To investigate the interaction between species-typical nurturing and adversity (ACEs, adverse childhood experiences), women (N = 113) were asked to report on EDN-history and ACEs. Physiological regulation was measured using respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) across three conditions that included stress and relaxation. Applying latent basis coefficient modeling, EDN-history moderated vagal withdrawal from baseline to stress and supported vagal activation from stress to recovery, suggesting a link between EDN-history and vagal adaptability. EDN-history acted as a buffer against ACEs on physiological regulation supporting women's vagal adaptability across differing conditions. Physiological adaptability is a key component of physical and psychological wellbeing and resilience. Experiences of the EDN in childhood may not only buffer adversity but also support the physiological building blocks of health and resilience.
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Background Emerging evidence suggests that overprotective and controlling parenting, often referred to as “helicopter parenting” may have negative implications on the child's mental health such as anxiety and depression. However, no systematic review on the topic exists. Objective Conducting a systematic review to identify all studies where the relationship between helicopter parenting and symptoms of anxiety and/or depression have been investigated. Method A systematic literature search conducted the 3rd of November 2021 yielded 38 eligible studies. Since helicopter parenting is a fairly new construct, this review considered parental control and overprotective parenting to be dimensions of helicopter parenting and thus, eligible for the study. Study quality was assessed in accordance with Campbells Validity Typology. Results The majority of the studies included in this review found a direct relationship between helicopter parenting and symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, validity problems undermine these findings with regarding to assessing the causal relationship between helicopter parenting and these symptoms. There were no longitudinal studies of sufficient quality to determine if helicopter parenting precedes the outcome of anxiety and depression. Conclusion Even though the majority of the studies included in this systematic review found a relationship between helicopter parenting and anxiety and depression, the evidence for this relationship is insufficient and must be investigated further. Findings suggest that it is important to include both maternal and paternal parenting style in future studies as they could affect the outcome of anxiety and depression differently. Systematic Review Registration PROSPERO 2020 CRD42020167465, .
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Young children spend a lot of time at home, yet there is little empirical research on how they spend that time and how it relates to developmental outcomes. Prior research suggests less-structured time – where children practice making choices and setting goals – may develop self-directed executive function in 6-year-olds. But less-structured time may be related to executive function for other reasons – for example, because less-structured time provides opportunities to acquire conceptual knowledge relevant to using executive function on tasks. We thus tested the possibility that less-structured time is also related to younger children's externally cued executive function. In this remote online study, caregivers of 93 3- to 5-year-olds indicated the amount of time their child was typically spending in various activities while at home during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Activities were categorized as structured (primarily lessons with specific goals defined by adults or an app), less-structured (wide range of activities permitting choice and interaction with caregiver), passive (e.g., watching TV or videos), and primarily physical (e.g., bike riding). Children's externally cued executive function was assessed via the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS). Time and variety in less-structured activities were related to successful switching on the DCCS, controlling for age, family income, caregiver education, and verbal knowledge. Caregivers were more involved in less-structured versus structured activities. Caregiver ratings of children's temperament were related to how children's time was spent. These findings suggest several new avenues for studying young children's activities at home and their relations with developmental outcomes. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved
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Self-regulation skills are foundational to successful participation in society, and predict a suite of positive outcomes throughout life. It has long been asserted that free (i.e. unstructured) play is important for the development of self-regulation, but studies investigating play and self-regulation have faced empirical limitations. The current study used a large sample (N = 2,213) from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children to investigate time spent in unstructured quiet and active play activities at ages 2-3 and 4-5 years as a predictor of self-regulation abilities two years later. Children's play was reported by parents who completed a 24-hour time-use diary for one random weekend day and weekday. Self-regulation was indexed at ages 4-5 and 6-7 by parent-, teacher-and observer-reported items comparable to similar large, longitudinal studies. Results showed that the more time children spent in unstructured quiet play in the toddler and preschool years, the better their self-regulation abilities at ages 4-5 and 6-7 years, even after controlling for earlier self-regulation abilities and other known predictors. Further, between one and five hours of preschoolers' unstructured active play time significantly predicted self-regulation two years later. This study provides early support for parenting programs designed to increase opportunities for children to spend time in unstructured, free play in the early years.
How are children raised in different cultures? What is the role of children in society? How are families and communities structured around them? Now in its third edition, this deeply engaging book delves into these questions by reviewing and cataloging the findings of over 100 years of anthropological scholarship dealing with childhood and adolescence. It is organized developmentally, moving from infancy through to adolescence and early adulthood, and enriched with anecdotes from ethnography and the daily media, to paint a nuanced and credible picture of childhood in different cultures, past and present. This new edition has been expanded and updated with over 350 new sources, and introduces a number of new topics, including how children learn from the environment, middle childhood, and how culture is 'transmitted' between generations. It remains the essential book to read to understand what it means to be a child in our complex, ever-changing world.
More policymakers and practitioners should encourage exploration and discovery during youth, to prevent adolescents from reaching crisis. More policymakers and practitioners should encourage exploration and discovery during youth, to prevent adolescents from reaching crisis.
BACKGROUND Play is essential for child growth and development, and may have academic and social-emotional implications. To understand the relationship between in-school play opportunities and academic achievement (AA) and social-emotional well-being among elementary school students, a systematic review of the current in-school play literature was conducted. METHODS Keywords were input across 7 search engines. After screening, 20 peer-reviewed publications related to play, AA, and social-emotional well-being met the inclusion criteria for this review. FINDINGS Across the included publications, recess was the only in-school play opportunity assessed. Overall, student behavior and social-emotional outcomes benefited from more recess while mixed results were found between recess participation and academic outcomes. However, more recess was not detrimental to AA. CONCLUSION The findings from this review support the need for recess as part of a whole child approach to education that may mitigate the negative outcomes of sitting through long periods of instruction. More research is needed on the AA and social-emotional effects of other types of in-school play opportunities (ie, centers, play stations, and other breaks). Findings from this review indicate that recess is a necessary part of the elementary school day.
Mental health encompasses a range of mental, emotional, social, and behavioral functioning and occurs along a continuum from good to poor. Previous research has documented that mental health among children and adolescents is associated with immediate and long-term physical health and chronic disease, health risk behaviors, social relationships, education, and employment. Public health surveillance of children's mental health can be used to monitor trends in prevalence across populations, increase knowledge about demographic and geographic differences, and support decision-making about prevention and intervention. Numerous federal data systems collect data on various indicators of children's mental health, particularly mental disorders. The 2013-2019 data from these data systems show that mental disorders begin in early childhood and affect children with a range of sociodemographic characteristics. During this period, the most prevalent disorders diagnosed among U.S. children and adolescents aged 3-17 years were attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, each affecting approximately one in 11 (9.4%-9.8%) children. Among children and adolescents aged 12-17 years, one fifth (20.9%) had ever experienced a major depressive episode. Among high school students in 2019, 36.7% reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless in the past year, and 18.8% had seriously considered attempting suicide. Approximately seven in 100,000 persons aged 10-19 years died by suicide in 2018 and 2019. Among children and adolescents aged 3-17 years, 9.6%-10.1% had received mental health services, and 7.8% of all children and adolescents aged 3-17 years had taken medication for mental health problems during the past year, based on parent report. Approximately one in four children and adolescents aged 12-17 years reported having received mental health services during the past year. In federal data systems, data on positive indicators of mental health (e.g., resilience) are limited. Although no comprehensive surveillance system for children's mental health exists and no single indicator can be used to define the mental health of children or to identify the overall number of children with mental disorders, these data confirm that mental disorders among children continue to be a substantial public health concern. These findings can be used by public health professionals, health care providers, state health officials, policymakers, and educators to understand the prevalence of specific mental disorders and other indicators of mental health and the challenges related to mental health surveillance.
Caregiving touch is a crucial component of natural caregiving and constitutes a protective factor with significant impact on infant neurodevelopment. Recent studies highlighted that maternal touch in early life is associated with epigenetic variation between infants. In the current paper, studies that address early caregiving touch in association with DNA methylation will be discussed, positing that mother-infant touch acts as an epigenetic protection mechanism. Understanding how maternal touch and body-to-body contact can shape the epigenome holds the potential to shed light on the mechanisms through which these early tactile experiences advance mental and physical health over the lifetime.