Researcher of the Month
How adventurous play could reduce the risk of childhood anxiety
A recent conceptual article by Helen Dodd and Kathryn Lester hypothesises that child-led, adventurous play could target a range of cognitive and behavioural factors that are linked to childhood anxiety. They argue that the positive and thrilling emotions associated with adventurous play, provide children with opportunities to learn about physiological arousal, uncertainty and coping, as well as facilitate exposure to fear-provoking situations. They suggest that these learning opportunities could reduce children’s risk for elevated anxiety.
The article draws upon existing research into childhood anxiety to outline how a range of risk markers might be targeted through adventurous play in early to middle childhood (ages 3-11). Currently, scientific research into the psychological benefits of adventurous play is scarce, but this paper proposes that adventurous play may be one effective way of decreasing children’s long-term risk of anxiety.
Dodd suggests an agenda for future research that brings these two fields together in a way which has not been done before, despite sound theoretical reasons suggesting that they have relevance to each other.
They examine the importance of exposure to fear-provoking situations in providing an opportunity for threat and coping mechanisms to be challenged and adjusted. They suggest that this playful exposure to fear gives children the opportunity to experience challenging emotions and practise positive coping strategies, which clinically anxious children are known to struggle with. They also suggest that risky play might increase children’s tolerance of uncertainty, which is strongly linked to anxiety.
‘There is significant potential to broaden our understanding of the benefits of adventurous play, moving beyond the dominant focus on physical health to also consider mental health outcomes, and to extend our understanding of the prevention of childhood anxiety’.
Implications for parents – Previous papers have suggested that children of parents who challenge, rather than overprotect, show fewer symptoms of anxiety. One suggestion in Professor Dodd’s paper is that parents who are highly anxious, or who are more inclined to be overprotective, may be more likely to restrict children’s adventurous play, via rules or more intense supervision. These children might therefore be less likely to experience the potential psychological benefits of adventurous play. A parenting style where children are challenged to try new and exciting things could lead to lower levels of anxiety.
Professor Dodd is also involved in the Summer of Play campaign, co-ordinated by Playfirst UK, Save the Children, Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales, Playboard Northern Ireland. The campaign appeals for a major national effort to get children playing, in order to bolster wellbeing and reduce the risk of any long-term impact on children’s development as a result of recent lockdowns. She comments that, “Amongst all the talk of educational catch-up it is vital that we don’t forget that children have also missed out on play with their friends, physical activity and fun.” To pledge your support to a summer of play, visit www.summerofplay.co.uk
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Professor Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading
Professor Dodd’s research examines risk factors that underpin the development of anxiety disorders in children, with a view to designing interventions to prevent anxiety. She is one of the first academics to be selected for a UK Research and Innovation’s Future Leaders Fellowship, to tackle global pressing challenges. This large research project examines whether increasing children’s opportunities for adventurous play can decrease their risk of anxiety. Professor Dodd is currently working on a project with the Museum of Rural Life to create the Pandemic Play Archive, a collection of memories chronicling how children’s play has changed during the Covid-19 pandemic.