let the children play! it’s good for their mental health

Psychology Today has an article on a new analysis of play and the mental health of young people. The gist is that (a) recently, we let kids have less unstructured play and (b) unstructured play increases the belief that one has direct control over their life, which in turn has positive effect on mental health and various measures of well being. From the article:

The standard measure of sense of control is a questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. The questionnaire consists of 23 pairs of statements. One statement in each pair represents belief in an Internal locus of control (control by the person) and the other represents belief in an External locus of control (control by circumstances outside of the person). The person taking the test must decide which statement in each pair is more true. One pair, for example, is the following:

  • (a) I have found that what is going to happen will happen.
  • (b) Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.

In this case, choice (a) represents an External locus of control and (b) represents an Internal locus of control.

Many studies over the years have shown that people who score toward the Internal end of Rotter’s scale fare better in life than do those who score toward the External end.[2] They are more likely to get good jobs that they enjoy, take care of their health, and play active roles in their communities—and they are less likely to become anxious or depressed.


In a research study published a few years ago, Twenge and her colleagues analyzed the results of many previous studies that used Rotter’s Scale with young people from 1960 through 2002.[3] They found that over this period average scores shifted dramatically—for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students—away from the Internal toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter’s scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.  

[Correction: The locus of control data used by Twenge and her colleagues for children age 9 to 14 came from the Nowicki-Strickland Scale, developed by Bonnie Strickland and Steve Nowicki, not from the Rotter Scale. Their scale is similar to Rotter’s, but modified for use with children.]

It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of Externality (and decline of Internality) is causally related to the rise in anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

Wow. Later in the article, they talk about how this shift correlates with mental health outcomes. So don’t schedule them or boss the, let them play.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio, psychology

3 Responses

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  1. I love your conclusions, my gut thinks just the same. But hey: we do have a paper which shows externality has been going up. Then we also know anxiety and depression have gone up, too. Hence, correlation, and, bonus points, we can “reasonably suggest” causation!!! And then I totally missed the link with unstructured play whatsoever. Where’s the datapoint, if any.

    I mean, muy gut feeling too is “let them play” must be good to bring up autonomous and self confident individuals. But if you set off for a “scientific” argument, please do so with some dignity.



    October 1, 2015 at 7:25 am

  2. What irony, Bumpyride. Fabio casually posts on his shared blog some scientific findings he finds interesting, they are suggestive of the connection between autonomy and mental health, and your move is to chastise him for his lack of scientific rigor.

    Let him play!

    Liked by 1 person


    October 2, 2015 at 5:19 am

  3. This is an interesting finding and plausibly related to changes in whether kids engage in autonomous play. But I also think sociological research tends to show that the external-locus-of-control people are actually correct. The world really is depressing and anxiety-inducing; our lives are heavily determined. I have no answer as to why people were better at self-delusion in the past.



    October 8, 2015 at 6:21 pm

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