Play, Identity, & Mental Health

Can we become who we are without play or is play is essential for the formation and development of human identity?  I am particularly interested in how play opens up a space for creativity, a space in which we can potentially transform our identities.  If we create ourselves, and play nurtures creativity, how might our identities emerge from a self-directed engagement with play?

Moreover, what happens to us when we are prevented from opening up such spaces for play, when we aren’t given time or when we become so constrained by the demands of others that the transitional space in which play resides becomes too dangerous, perhaps because it is so free and open to possibility? If spaces for play are foreclosed, what happens to a developing identity?

One particular concern of mine is the suspension of play for adolescents (at least here in the US). In middle and upper-middle class communities, adolescents (and even younger children) are increasingly burdened by academic requirements, and their only “play” (if it is, indeed, play) is structured and competitive sports. I see this kind of play as focused on building a group (team) identity and encouraging loyalty, which is not necessarily the same as building individual identity.(1)  What happens to an adolescent’s developing sense of self when he/she has no time for unstructured, self-directed play?

A Twitter search for “play and mental health” brings up tweets, such as this one from MD Pediatric Associates citing research that links play and exercise to “better attention spans, lower BMIs, and better mental health” and this one from writer Allen Baird pointing his readers to Peter Gray’s piece in Psychology Today, The Decline of Play and Rise of Mental Disorders, in which Gray argues that a significant increase in childhood and adolescent anxiety and depression can be associated with a decrease in child-directed, unstructured play. Gray references research that links anxiety and depression to people’s sense of locus of control; in other words, people have higher rates of anxiety and depression when they believe that their fate is controlled by factors outside of themselves (external locus of control) than if they believe they have control over their own destinies. Gray maintains that “by depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives,” thereby increasing the chance that they will develop problems with anxiety and depression.

American teacher Timothy Walker, writing for The Atlantic recounts his experience teaching in Finland, where it is common practice to give children 15 minutes of free play every hour. At first unconvinced of the merits of so much free time, Walker refused to implement the policy. He recalls thinking that the “Finnish way seemed soft and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time.” It was not long before Walker’s students became agitated; one developed a rash and told Walker he felt he would explode. So Walker adopted the Finnish system, and his students improved. In his words,

Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.

Despite testimony such as Walker’s who references research done by Anthony Pellegrini at the University of Minnesota that confirms that children are, indeed, more attentive with frequent breaks, and despite articles such as Gray’s, in Psychology Today and Valerie Strauss’s Why some schools are sending kids out for recess four times a day, it is my observation that many more schools are reducing time for recess in a frenzied attempt to prepare children, earlier and earlier, for the college admission process. In her book, How to Raise an Adult,” Julie Lythcott-Haims explains this frenzy as a consequence of parental anxiety.

In my clinical work with children and adolescents both in a school setting and in private practice, I have experienced so many anxious children and adolescents who have little or no time to play. Indeed, their parents and communities seem caught up in the frenzy of preparation for college, for the right job, and for a good and successful life, someday way into the future.

The consequences are all too often much more dire than inattention or even aggressive acting out. I see eating disorders, self-harming behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. I encounter these individuals when their stress levels are nearly unbearable, and they report that they have no time for anything other than schoolwork, structured extracurricular activities designed to improve their college applications, and structured competitive play in the form of team sports, also designed to improve college applications. Those who don’t experience positive symptoms (2)–symptoms like self harm or drug use–find passive ways to opt out of the stress. Some procrastinate, which they experience as ego dystonic; they berate themselves for the endless hours watching Netflix or Youtube and not working harder to get better and better grades. Others opt out through unconscious dissociative-like experiences, where, in their words, they “zone out,” sometime for hours, and they simply cannot explain how the time has passed.

You might think that Peter Gray and I are exaggerating the negative consequences of the loss of play. You might question whether things are really so much worse today than they were a generation ago. Gray, however, references a 2010 study done by Jean Twenge who, using a standard instrument, the MMPI, found

dramatic increases in anxiety and depression—in children as well as adolescents and young adults—over the last five or more decades.

The CDC website reports that for all ages 10 to 75,

From 1999 through 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 population, with the pace of increase greater after 2006.

In 2015 in an article in the Atlantic Monthly, Hanna Rosin reported on the alarming rate of suicide among affluent students with “bright prospects” in Palo Alto, California.

What’s going on? How do we understand these disturbing trends?  As parents, communities, schools, and students themselves become more driven by the values of the neoliberal, market-driven economy, with its focus on material success predicated on high achievement in high school and college, there is less and less time for unstructured play and moments of self-reflection and self-awareness that such play time can offer. If the formation and evolution of identity is, as I suggest, dependent upon opportunities to be in transitional spaces where creative insight and new ideas about inner and outer reality can germinate and if we have less and less time to be in such transitional spaces, then perhaps the possibility of even holding on to one’s sense of self–one’s basic identity–contracts or is even eclipsed.

Could suicide be the response to a feeling that one does not even exist, or that there is no path to feeling one’s self?


^1. In The Ambiguity of Play, Brian Sutton-Smith observes that the play rhetoric of identity frames play as a means of consolidating and confirming identity. However, he uses the term identity not to define an individual’s process of separating and distinguishing him/herself from others but rather to define the process by which a community comes together. In Sutton-Smith’s sense of the word, identity connotes a sense of belonging to a group–be it a family or extrafamilial group. It deals with matters of loyalty to the group and promotes group cohesion over individual separateness or individual identity. Team sports bind one to the team and to the school or community to which the team owes allegiance. The individual’s separateness or difference yields to the primacy of the group. Since individual identity, no matter how separate, always emerges intersubjectively, in a cultural context, the group is, of course, an important contributor to identity. However, one’s separate sense of self, held in tension with one’s allegiance to the group, is also an important component of identity. How am I like others and how I am I distinct? This is a basic tension in identity.

^2. I have adopted the terms positive and negative symptoms from the schizophrenia literature, but I am not saying that the adolescents with whom I work, who are struggling mightily with identity issues, are psychotic. Rather, the terms are used here to refer to acting out behaviors (such as self injury, drug use, or eating disorders) as opposed to passive and often unconsciously generated symptoms such as dissociation.



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