Good Peer Play at Age 3 Means Better Mental Health Down the Road

two children playing with a toy rocket together

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Key Takeaways

  • Children receive physical, mental, and social benefits from playing with other kids.
  • 3-year-old children who are good at peer play have less mental health issues when they get older.
  • By the age of 3, kids are learning relational skills that are important for good mental health.

When grown-ups see kids playing, they see games of hide and seek, freeze tag, or games of make-believe. What they don’t see is that kids are building confidence and self-esteem, nurturing curiosity, and developing coordination and stamina.

Research shows that when children play, they are enhancing numerous cognitive, social, and physical skills. And now, a new study adds even more to that list.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that when kids play with peers, they are setting themselves up for better mental health in the future.

“It is well-known that peer relationships and basic skills are fundamental to building relationships, which are fundamental to good mental health,” states Mary Alvord, PhD, psychologist and coauthor of "Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents."

The results of this recent study show that children who play well with their peers at age 3 have better mental health at age 7. We discuss the study findings, how playing impacts kids’ mental health, and how parents can help children enjoy playing with their peers.

Study Details

Researchers gathered information from the Growing Up in Australia: Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which looks at kids’ psychosocial and cognitive development in two-year intervals.

They examined data from almost 1,700 children. The information focused on the 3-year-olds’ peer play, temperaments, and family play. Researchers then looked at the mental health outcomes for these children at age 7.

Once they gathered the data, they were able to see that kids who played well with other children at age 3 dealt with less mental health concerns at age 7. Experts say this age group provides good insight into a child’s current and future development.

“By age 3, there are the basic foundational skills—cognitive skills, motor skills, and social and emotional skills,” states Alvord.

“By then, the child is able to interact back and forth fluidly. I thought the study was very strong in choosing this age range,” she adds.

The significance of this study is that it supports what child development experts have shared about the importance of play for children. Brain development, self-advocacy skills, and academic growth can all come from times of play.

“The big message is peer relationships and friendships are crucial to positive development,” notes Alvord.

Peer Play and Mental Health

Play helps to build up a child's sense of accomplishment and confidence. Play can also help them process emotions and reduce their stress levels. Unstructured play even improves concentration and helps kids strengthen their self-regulation.

But just having times of play isn’t enough; the type of play, with interaction among peers, is what makes a difference.

Mary Alvord, PhD

The big message is peer relationships and friendships are crucial to positive development.

— Mary Alvord, PhD

“The benefits of peer play—not having your child isolated, and not exclusive to just the family—help kids learn how to further develop communication language skills, cognitive skills, and problem solving,” notes Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center.

The fact that children have to exercise specific skills to have positive interactions with other kids their age is what helps them derive the mental health benefits.

Building coping skills and resilience, as well as developing positive relationships, all involve engaging with others.

“By age 3, there are beginnings of reciprocity, give and take, as well as sharing and taking turns. Those are fundamental skills and the building blocks of relationships which are crucial for mental wellness,” Alvord states.

Findings like these make the case for recess and times of unstructured play even stronger. Recess allows for unfettered play that gives social, emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits.

Parents Can Encourage Better Peer Play

While parents don’t want to become over-involved in their child’s play time, they can help guide children to have positive play experiences. Setting up play dates with children of similar ages or suggesting games and activities can be a good start.

Children who are shy and tentative to engage other children may start to get their feet wet by playing with siblings. However, some learning activities are best developed with children outside of the family.

“It can start with the parents and the siblings, but the mastery is not shown until you see it with peers,” says Mendez.

Family interactions can, however, help prepare children to engage kids their own ages.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

It can start with the parents and the siblings, but the mastery is not shown until you see it with peers.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

“The wonderful thing is that you can teach these concrete skills. Some kids have a really hard time picking up social cues. Especially the more nuanced and the more nonverbal. So, you can teach it to them directly,” adds Alvord.

How do you know if your child is having a hard time? Taking time to observe them while playing is key. If they seem to be struggling with interactions and developmentally appropriate social skills, you can step in to help.

Keep in mind that kids develop in different ways and in different stages. The goal is not to stress out over the play activities of your child. Instead, you want to learn how you can best help them grow, develop, and learn in a healthy way that will promote good mental health.

What This Means For You

Kids playing, laughing, and interacting with other children has many benefits for them physically, emotionally, and socially. And as the study notes, play also benefits their mental health. As parents, encourage your child to enjoy their time of play and creativity. Allow them to develop those critical skills and have fun doing it.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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