Children who are taught to play well with others at pre-school age tend to enjoy better mental health as they get older, according to new research.
The findings, from researchers at the University of Cambridge, provide the first clear evidence that 'peer play ability', the capacity to play well with others, has a protective effect on mental health.
Researchers analysed data from almost 1,700 children in Australia, collected when they were aged three and seven. Those with better peer play ability at age three consistently showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later.
They tended to have lower hyperactivity, parents and teachers reported fewer behavioural and emotional problems, and they were less likely to get into fights or arguments with other children.
Significantly, this connection generally held true even when the researchers focused on children who were particularly at risk of mental health problems, including factors like poverty levels, or if a mother had experienced serious psychological distress.
The research suggests giving young children who might be vulnerable to mental health issues access to well-supported opportunities to play with their friends could be a way to significantly benefit their long-term mental health.
Dr Jenny Gibson, from the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: "We think this connection exists because through playing with others, children acquire the skills to build strong friendships as they get older and start school. Even if they are at risk of poor mental health, those friendship networks will often get them through."
According to the data, for every unit increase in peer play ability at age three, children's measured score for hyperactivity problems at age seven fell by 8.4 per cent, conduct problems by 8 per cent, emotional problems by 9.8 per cent and peer problems by 14 per cent.
The study is published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development.