Child play a priority after lockdown

Ella Rhodes reports on an open letter.

A panel of psychologists, psychiatrists and others have urged the government to prioritise children’s play over formal learning when lifting the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. The group, led by child mental health experts at the Universities of Sussex, Cambridge and Reading, said children must be given enough opportunities to play and socialise to avoid a nationwide mental health crisis.

In writing to senior ministers the group strongly recommended that small groups of children should be allowed to play outdoors as soon as it was safe to do so – and as one of the first steps in relaxing lockdown. They also suggested that schools which reopen should make sure that children have opportunities to play and interact with fellow pupils throughout the school day.

Sam Cartwright-Hatton, Professor of Clinical Child Psychology (University of Sussex) said that all research indicated children’s emotional health was suffering in the lockdown and that this suffering would continue in the long term. ‘We are urging ministers and policymakers ensure that children are afforded substantial, and if possible enhanced, access to high quality play opportunities as soon as possible.’

While some may dismiss play as unimportant playing with friends and classmates Senior lecturer in Psychology and Education at the Faculty of Education Dr Jenny Gibson (University of Cambridge) said it had a significant impact on children’s social development. ‘Critically, it is an important way of working through emotions and will therefore be one of the principal ways in which they cope with the isolating effects of the lockdown.

‘For that reason it’s important that whatever steps are taken to ease social distancing restrictions, children are given time and space to play with friends. My own research suggests that social play skills are directly related both to children’s social-emotional adjustment and their academic achievement, so it is a concern that this is something that has been missing from many children’s lives for a number of weeks.’

The panel based their recommendations on research which highlighted the harmful impact of isolation on children and the benefits of play. One study which explored parental reports of children’s mental health following social distancing measures in countries affected by previous pandemics found children who experienced quarantine or social isolation measures were five times more likely to require mental health service input than those who did not.

The therapeutic benefits of play on child mental health have also been highlighted by studies of children in war zones and survivors of Romanian orphanages. Recent polls found around two-thirds of primary school children were feeling lonely – an increase of approximately 50 per cent compared with normal levels.

Dr Kathryn Lester, senior lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex, said that although children may be playing more during lockdown they were missing opportunities to play with others, ‘Play has substantial benefits for children’s emotional wellbeing especially during periods of anxiety and stress. It provides a sense of control, it helps children make sense of things they might be struggling to understand, and importantly it makes children happy.’

Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology (University of Reading) pointed out the difficulties for many children in transitioning back to school – particularly when social distancing measures will likely still be in place – and schools should have the time to support that transition bearing children’s wellbeing in mind.

‘We ask that, once it is safe to do so, the loosening of lockdown is done in a way that allows children to play with their peers, without social distancing, as soon as possible. This may mean that close play is only permitted in pairs or small groups or within social bubbles that allow repeated mixing with a small number of contacts.’

To read more from Jenny Gibson and Elian Fink on the importance of play in early childhood see this article from our May edition.

See also our ever-growing collection of psychological perspectives on the coronavirus crisis.

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