More free play + less homework = better mental health + less medication?

March 31st, 2016  |  Published in Health & Mental Health


One article promoting free play for children and another challenging the academic merit of homework are separately interesting and seemed worth bringing together.

More free play

According to Dr Peter Gray, when children engage in free play (out from under direct adult supervision) they solve problems, find out about their interests, and develop competence.

Free play thus helps to develop two important personal characteristics:

  • Internal locus of control (the sense of agency arising from problem-solving within the environment);
  • Intrinsic goal-setting (development of goals that are self-driven, as distinct from extrinsic goals set by others)

Internal locus of control and intrinsic goal-setting correlate positively withplay1 mental health. These relationships hold regardless of “economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children’s mental states”.

So, the argument goes, children need free play for good mental health, but get less than in times past, and this needs to change.

Less homework

Free play is something children might (theoretically) be able to have more of if they had less homework (which is where the second article becomes relevant).

Heather Shumaker summarises research suggesting that, for primary school children, homework does nothing to improve academic performance. In middle school, the relationship between homework and academic success is minimal at best. By the time kids reach high school, homework provides academic benefit, but only in moderation. Two hours per night is the limit. After that amount, the benefits taper off.

play7An academic review of the homework debate by Kirsten Weir of the American Psychological Association provides more detail but basically confirms that more (homework) is not better and that unstructured time is important for children’s development.

There are also other issues, apart from homework overload, that influence the amount of free play children have. These include safety concerns, and the need for some adult oversight even if it is hands-off. The working lives of adults and the space restrictions of inner-city living set their own constraints.

Better mental health and less medication?

If it was possible to expand the scope for free play, partly by reducing or eliminating homework, and the hypothesised mental health benefits were demonstrated, that would surely be worth pursuing.

The implications for the mental health of young people also raised for me the play4possibility that certain diagnoses, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) might be reduced if ideas about free play could be realistically and safely implemented.

Without wanting to oversimplify conditions such as ADHD, recent articles about over-diagnosis, and the limited usefulness of Ritalin, encourage thoughtfulness about whether changes to the conditions of at least some children’s lives (by limiting homework and thus creating possibilities for more free play) could provide relatively non-invasive ways of optimising wellbeing.

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