When children are in charge of their own play, it provides a foundation for their future mental health as older children and adults. Gray mentions five main benefits:
1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests. As they choose the activities that make up free play, kids learn to direct themselves and pursue and elaborate on their interests in a way that can sustain them throughout life. Gray notes that: "...in school, children work for grades and praise and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies.... In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity."
2. It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self control, and follow rules. As children direct their own free play and solve the problems that come up, they must exert control over themselves and must, at times, accept restrictions on their own behavior and follow the rules if they want to be accepted and successful in the game. As children negotiate both their physical and social environments through play, they can gain a sense of mastery over their world, Gray contends. It is this aspect of play that offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect children from anxiety and depression. "Children who do not have the opportunity to control their own actions, to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play grow up feeling that they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others...." Anxiety and depression often occur when an individual feels a lack of control over his or her own life. "Those who believe that they master their own fate are much less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control." Gray believes that the loss of playtime lessons about one's ability to exert control over some life circumstances set the scene for anxiety and depression.
3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play. In free play, children put themselves into both physically and socially challenging situations and learn to control the emotions that arise from these stressors. They role play, swing, slide, and climb trees ... and "such activities are fun to the degree that they are moderately frightening ... nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right dose." Gray suggests that the reduced ability to regulate emotions may be a key factor in the development of some anxiety disorders. "Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders describe losing emotional control as one of their greatest fears. They are afraid of their own fear, and therefore small degrees of fear generated by mildly threatening situations lead to high degrees of fear generated by the person's fear of losing control." Adults who did not have the opportunity to experience and cope with moderately challenging emotional situations during play are more at risk for feeling anxious and overwhelmed by emotion-provoking situations in adult life.
4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals. Social play is a natural means of making friends and learning to treat one another fairly. Since play is voluntary and playmates may abandon the game at any time if they feel uncomfortable, children learn to be aware of their playmates' needs and attempt to meet them in order to maintain the play. Gray believes that "learning to get along and cooperate with others as equals may be the most crucial evolutionary function of human social play ... and that social play is nature's means of teaching young humans that they are not special. Even those who are more skilled at the game's actions ... must consider the needs and wishes of the others as equal to their own, or else the others will exclude them." Gray cites increasing social isolation as a potential precursor to psychopathology and notes that the decline in play may be "both a consequence and a cause of the increased social isolation and loneliness in the culture."
5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness. When children are asked about the activities that bring them happiness, they say they are happier when playing with friends than in any other situation. Perhaps you felt this way when remembering your own childhood play experiences at the beginning of this article. Gray sees the loss of play time as a double whammy: we have not only taken away the joys of free play, we have replaced them with emotionally stressful activities. "
[A]s a society, we have come to the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for ever more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults, setting almost designed to produce anxiety and depression."