Contrary to Most Predictions, Kids’ Mental Health and Mood Actually Improved During Early Lockdowns

Baking, biking, Bitcoin — kids discovered new interests and talents thanks to lots of free time to fill.

Many kids’ mental well-being actually IMPROVED early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s the conclusion of a study by Let Grow co-founder Dr. Peter Gray, published in the  American Journal of Play.

In April and May of 2020, Let Grow conducted several large-scale, demographically representative online surveys of children, ages 8–13, and their families. The results turned out to be the opposite of what health experts feared at the start of the pandemic. While many anticipated negative impacts on children such as increased stress, heightened anxiety, and depression, Gray’s analysis of the data found the opposite to be true.

In total, we surveyed 1600 parents and 1600 kids. We asked the parents how they thought their kids were doing, whether they were pitching in with the housework, how they were getting along with their siblings, etc. And we asked the kids questions about their mood and their free time, including things like, “Are you learning anything new, just for fun?”

“The sudden cancelation of school and other scheduled activities that typically occupied our children’s time led to a greater discovery of self-exploration,” said Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College and one of the leading researchers on play and education. “With less schoolwork and more free time, we found children enjoyed their increased independence.”

Other key Covid-and-kids findings of the study include:

  • “Happy” was one of the most frequently checked options by children in the surveys when describing their past week, and “sad” and “angry” were the least.
  • Children self-reported helping more around the house, reading for fun, and doing arts or crafts.
  • Greater autonomy allowed and encouraged children to discover what they liked to do, which improved their mood and freed up parental time to fulfill their own needs.

With the lockdown last spring, many children were thrown from a very structured, supervised life filled with school and other adult-directed activities, to suddenly scads of free time. While some children reported experiencing boredom, boredom motivated them to action: playing, exploring, biking, baking… One girl got into Bitcoin. (And boy do we wish we had, too!)

In addition to his research on play and education, Dr. Gray is the brain behind our  “Let Grow Play Club”, a program that encourages mixed-age, device-free play where adults don’t intervene, except in true emergencies. The Let Grow Play Club promotes social-emotional growth in children, as well as the development of real-world skills like negotiating, compromising, and making things happen.

“There’s so much pressure on children to succeed from an early age,” said Dr. Gray. “I hope that one small thing schools and districts take from all of this is that children need more unstructured time, whether that’s less homework, more time at home, or something else.”

To read the complete study in the American Journal of Play, please visit  http://www.journalofplay.org.