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The protective effects of peer play against mental health problems

Yiran Vicky Zhao, Jenny Gibson

Why did we do this research?

Playing with peers is key to children’s socialisation. They learn how to take turns, cooperate with each other, resolve conflicts, and regulate their own emotions and behaviours during peer play. These skills are equally important for their mental health development. That is, through peer play in their early years, children improve self-regulatory skills and build supportive friendships, which reduce children’s risks of mental health problems in the future.

Although widely acknowledged as key to children’s early development, peer play has often been overlooked due to the limited of amount of empirical evidence available. However, following the increasing prevalence of mental health problems among young children over the pandemic and the associated decline of peer play opportunities, many have questioned the salience of peer play in children’s mental health development.

How did we do it?

To understand the longitudinal influence of peer play abilities on children’s internalising and externalising problems, we conducted structural equation modelling on 1676 children from the Growing Up in Australia dataset.

What did we find?

After controlling for known risk factors such as socioeconomic status, children’s temperament, and maternal psychological distress, we found that better peer play abilities at age 3 were associated with reduced risks of internalising and externalising problems at age 7.

We modelled the effects of peer play for two mental health at-risk groups, defined by high-level reactivity and low-level persistence at age 3. We found protective evidence of peer play abilities for these two groups as well.