How Play Helps: How Play Supports Kids’ Mental Health & Emotional Development

An adult and child standing on a wooden raft smile as they work together to pull themselves across a pretend river

Play is one of the very best ways that children develop the skill sets they need for healthy social and emotional skills, to manage toxic strength, and to support their mental health.

How Play Helps: How Play Supports Kids’ Mental Health & Emotional Development

After the year we’ve all been through, it may not come as a surprise that there’s a mental health emergency among children that’s only worsening as a result of the emotional toll the pandemic, economic crisis, and struggle against racial inequities is having on children.

And although it’s frightening to admit, it’s incredibly important that we realize how extensively children are impacted by stressors in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Stress from school, family issues, economic and housing challenges, changes in routine, health issues, abuse, trauma, and other adverse childhood experiences have significant and negative impacts on children.  Those stressors have been real and more plentiful than ever over the past year, causing rises in reports of childhood depression, behavioral issues, suicidal attempts, and other mental health concerns.

The good news: There are steps that we can take to both prevent adverse childhood experiences and support children’s mental health, setting our children up to succeed and thrive in school and life. But with the foundation for mental health built early in life, it’s important that we understand how to recognize and respond to mental health concerns in our children – and how to help support good mental health as well.

Mental Health & Children

It’s common for children to experience a range of emotions – from joy and happiness to fear, anxiety, anger, and disappointment – as they grow up. As children develop and grow up, it can be tough to know what signs to look out for and what to do if you have concerns about your child’s mental health.
How Play Helps: How Play Supports Kids’ Mental Health & Emotional Development

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, some signs to look out for in children include the following:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

Additional signs to be aware of include difficulties with how a child plays learns, speaks, and acts, as well as how a child handles their emotions and issues, including repeated refusal to take part in normal activities.

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health or behaviors, consult your child’s healthcare professional as soon as possible. We also encourage you to talk to your child’s health care professionals about signs to look out for about your child’s behavior, social and emotional development, overall health, and mental health.

How Play Helps Support Kids’ Mental Health
How Play Helps: How Play Supports Kids’ Mental Health & Emotional Development

The good news is that there are many ways to support kids’ mental health – from simply talking to your children, spending time together, establishing healthy habits, providing positive feedback, approval, and affection, and taking care of your own mental health – to one of our very favorite activities – PLAY!

Play is one of the very best ways children learn and is a great tool for stress relief – but it also is one of the very best ways that children develop the skill sets they need to develop healthy social and emotional skills and manage toxic stress. Play also helps children experience joy, feelings of self-confidence, improving concentration, building resilience, and developing healthy relationships with caregivers and peers.

Six Playful Activities to Support Mental Health
How Play Helps: How Play Supports Kids’ Mental Health & Emotional Development
  1. Play for FUN!  Unstructured, relaxing, joyful play that doesn’t have a set outcome or pressure to “win” is a great way to support children’s mental health. Playtime has many benefits – including helping children be creative, learn communication and problem-solving skills, and learn self-control – but it also is a great way for them to relieve stress, interact with their peers, and play and build relationships with their parents and caregivers. A tip to remember: the most important part of this type of play is having fun and being involved, not winning or achieving a certain goal.
  2. Physical Activity and Exercise. Activities like running, jumping, walking, hiking, riding a bike, and playing sports are all great for children’s physical health and can support mental health, too. Why is that? Physical activity releases endorphins that increase happiness and helps children increase self-esteem, build confidence and manage anxiety.
  3. Dramatic or Pretend Play. Dramatic play – where children use their imaginations to drive their play – involves playing pretend, acting out stories and situations, and coming up with imaginary worlds and experiences where your child controls the outcome. This type of play helps children develop important skills in many areas – but also provides great opportunities for children to work through things that they might be anxious about, to pretend to be different characters and learn empathy, to learn how to resolve problems and conflicts, and to give children an emotional outlet for their feelings.
  4. Creative Art Exploration. For little ones, creative play is not only fun – but it also encourages children to be creative, express themselves without judgment, and explore through various art forms. Art play fosters creativity, promotes healthy childhood development, and helps develop problem-solving and other important skills. Art-based activities also help children connect with others and have opportunities to express themselves and their emotions.
  5. Enjoy Play Time With Others! Play is a great way for children to observe others – and learn things like how to interact with others, how to communicate and problem solve, how to negotiate, how to control their own emotions, and how to get along with others. Encourage your children to play with other children that they might know, but also be sure they have opportunities to play and interact with children that they don’t know. It will help them continue to learn about themselves while also building an understanding of the world around them – and the people in it!
  6. Try Out New Activities & Experiences. Introducing your children to new experiences and environments can help them develop an understanding of the world, learn about their own interests, likes and dislikes, and develop coping skills that will help them navigate new and different experiences throughout their lives. When trying out new experiences, ask children about their feelings, observations, and about what they’re learning and observing about others, as this can be a great way to help children build empathy, understand their own feelings, and be respectful of others feelings as well.

Additional Resources to Explore

While this is not an exhaustive list of resources, we hope that this list of additional resources is helpful to you: