Is a Decline in Independent Play the Major Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Health?

Andy Hab
7 min readNov 25, 2023

A lot of evidence points in the direction of lack of autonomy and independence in children leads to an increase in mental health issues

Well now, that is a big statement to make!

Yes, it is but it’s only my rewording of just such a dramatic statement by a group of researchers in February of this year — I seemed to have missed this at the time.

So, if I get this right, the researchers are claiming that decline in independent play is the primary, the key, factor in a decline in mental health: not other factors such as school stress, economic challenges, covid, etc?

Yes, but for the record they did say a cause. I’ve used artistic licence and substituted the major. However, their conclusions are dramatic and they clearly see this is equivalent to a very dangerous and insidious pandemic that is causing multiple issues in society.

This is backed up, as academics do, of course, by reviewing the literature and the evidence is pretty compelling. Based on what I know of brain development and also the positive impacts of play, it makes sense.

However, I still found some of it surprising.

Ok, give me the outline of why this could be the case.

Well, for that we have to go back to early days and my youth even. Though much of what is documented is USA focused (but they have reviewed papers from all over the planet). In the 1970’s when I grew up it was common to walk to school, often substantial distances, from the age of five. Often in groups of children or with older brothers or sisters. I can actually only ever remember walking to school. Of note is that this is still encouraged in Switzerland.

No being driven by parents to and from school then!

Oh no, not at all — children being picked up by parents was a rarity — I remember driving past my old school a few years ago and being shocked at how many cars were waiting to pick children up. This didn’t happen when I grew up. I was almost never driven anywhere.

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Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!