Why children’s mental wellbeing improved during the early months of COVID lockdown

Can we reverse the trend toward increasing amounts of homework and pressure for high test scores?
By: | September 3, 2021
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Peter Gray

Peter Gray

At least four large-scale research studies, conducted in the Spring of 2020—two in the U.S., one in the U.K., and one in Norway–found that children’s mental health improved during the early months of the COVID-induced school closures. Collectively, they revealed that children and teens felt less anxious, less depressed, and psychologically stronger following lockdown than in the months prior.

I was involved in the design and analysis of one of the U.S. studies, which was sponsored by Let Grow, a nonprofit organization, which I co-founded, that works with schools and communities to increase children’s opportunities for independence and free play. My full report of that study, along with a summary of the other three studies, appears in the Fall 2020 issue of the American Journal of Play.

In what follows I present the main conclusions from that study and some thoughts about lessons schools might take from these conclusions, particularly those about the value to children of more playtime, more responsibility for helping out at home, and more opportunity to try new things.

3 basic psychological needs

The Let Grow study consisted of two surveys in 2020–one in mid-April, and two in mid-May, roughly one and two months after most schools had closed due to the pandemic. Each survey was of approximately 800 families, encompassing 3200 families in all. The families were selected to provide demographic balance, racially, socioeconomically, and geographically. Here is a summary of the findings, quoting from the article:

“By their own and their parents’ reports, children in the population surveyed were on average experiencing less stress and anxiety during the pandemic than they had before, were far more often happy than sad, were getting more sleep, were appreciating the extra time with their parents, were involved in fewer conflicts with their parents, were learning how to cook and in other ways were helping out at home, were discovering and pursuing new activities that they enjoyed, and were gaining new respect from their parents because of the ways they managed themselves and helped the family at this time. The sudden canceling of school and other activities that had previously occupied most of their waking time led many of them to experience boredom, … [which] stirred them to take initiative, to try new activities, and seek new interests.”

One way to explain the children’s improved mental wellbeing involves reference to what psychologists call self-determination theory. This theory, supported by literally hundreds of studies, posits that mental wellbeing is directly related to the degree to which three basic psychological needs are satisfied—the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

My contention is that these needs were, for most children, more fully satisfied during the early months of lockdown than before.

‘Something I like about this time is ____ ‘

Children’s increased experience of autonomy during lockdown is easy to understand. They went from a condition in which most of their waking time was spent doing things they were required or directed to do—not just at school but also in adult-directed afterschool activities—to a condition in which they almost had to make their own choices of what to do and how, or be bored.

They reported taking up activities in such realms as arts and crafts, reading books of their own choosing (rather than books assigned to them), learning how to cook (because they wanted to), acquiring new computer skills, and learning and playing new games, online with friends or at home with family members. These same activities would also increase their sense of competence.

The possibility that the lockdown increased children’s feelings of relatedness is less obvious, as they were deprived of physical contact with most friends. However, in our study and the other conducted in the U.S., children reported that a major benefit of the enforced time at home was increased bonding with family members. I

In the Let Grow study, 47% of the children completed the sentence, “Something I like about this time is ____ ,” with a statement about feeling closer to their mother, father, siblings, or family in general. Parents and children were commonly home more during the lockdown than before. Some children wrote about the enjoyment of family dinners, with everyone present, which had previously been rare.

It is instructive to consider these findings in the context of a tragic trend that had been occurring for decades prior to COVID. As schooling became ever more consuming of children’s time, ever more narrowly focused on test scores, ever more pressured, and as children and teens were increasingly encouraged to participate in adult-directed activities outside of school and had less opportunity to play and explore on their own, rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide for school-aged children increased steadily and dramatically.

Even if our primary concern were academic learning rather than children’s happiness, we must concede that unhappiness impedes learning.

Courage to go further

So, what can schools do to improve children’s psychological wellbeing? Stated differently, what can schools do to augment students’ experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness?

One obvious step would be to reverse the trend toward increasing amounts of homework and pressure for high test scores. Go for less drill and more ungraded, creative, playful activities. Beyond that, I suggest that school leaders consider implementing an evidence-based program that encourages students to play freely or step outside of their comfort zone to try something new.

To promote children’s experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and improves school climate overall, schools should consider extended playtimes that are monitored but not directed, by teachers. Administrators should consider providing a much greater variety of ways to play, including an outdoor playground, gymnasium, some school hallways, and rooms with games, craft supplies, and loose parts.

Teachers should frequently ask their students to think of something they would like to do but have not done, perhaps because they are somewhat afraid to do it or their parents have not allowed it. An assignment could then be to negotiate with their parents to get permission to do that thing, or some version of it acceptable to the parents.

Research shows that parents and children are proud when such a task is accomplished, and then both parent and child gain the courage to go a step further.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College, author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life and a co-founder of Let Grow.