The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 states children have the right to access play, rest and leisure. With the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, play opportunities are vital to helping children make sense of their experiences, problem-solve, reconnect with their peers, and promote their own wellbeing. In this blog, Cathy Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Educational and Child Psychology at The University of Manchester, and Marianne Mannello, Assistant Director of Play Wales consider the important role of children’s play during lockdown in promoting positive mental health, and discuss the ways schools can promote play when they reopen.
- When schools reopen, the focus should be on play and mental health, rather than ‘curriculum catch-up’.
- A blurred approach to learning and play is needed instead, utilising open spaces to maintain physical distancing.
- Guidance from the Departments for Education, based on recent research, would help teachers plan the school day more effectively.
Why play is important to children’s wellbeing
Last year, before the current lockdown situation, researchers at The University of Manchester, alongside specialist partners, developed a position statement for the British Psychological Society highlighting the importance of play in helping children deal with uncertainty and challenge, regulate emotions and experience fun, enjoyment and freedom. In an accompanying video, children explained why they valued play and how important it was to them.
Play can help promote wellbeing in terms of helping children to:
- make sense of what has happened to them;
- deal with emotional upset and regain control of their lives;
- experience normality and pleasure during times of upheaval, loss, isolation and trauma;
- foster resilience through promoting emotional regulation, creativity, relationships, problem-solving and learning.
Play and wellbeing during lockdown
Play has not stopped for lockdown and is as important as ever, as it is children’s way of supporting their own health and wellbeing. Children will find opportunities for play, even in the most adverse of circumstances and parents can support this through:
- time – enabling children to play freely and valuing play;
- space – creating opportunities for play using everyday objects, and recognising that play can sometimes be noisy and boisterous;
- permission – acknowledging that it is okay for older children to play, for children to play alone, and for children to decide how they want to play.
However, children’s opportunities for play will be affected by their family’s circumstances. For example, in situations where parents are expected to work, where there is limited indoor or outdoor space, or stress from loved ones being distant or unwell, opportunities might be compromised.
Transition back to school
There have been recent calls by leading academics for schools to prioritise play when they reopen. This may be particularly important for children who have experienced difficult circumstances during lockdown, such as parental separation, loss, grief or trauma.
To highlight the importance of play, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published General Comment 17, highlighting how play provides a means by which children can externalise difficult, unsettling or traumatic life experiences and offer specific guidance to schools as to how this might be achieved.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, concerns about diminished opportunities for play, especially for vulnerable groups such as children with special educational needs and disabilities, and children living in poverty had already been highlighted because curriculum pressures have led to reduced opportunities for play in schools.
Children cannot learn effectively when they are stressed or overwhelmed. Studies of brain development indicate that children who have experienced trauma find it difficult to maintain attention, remember things, manage behaviour and regulate emotions, and can have mental health issues in adolescence and adulthood. There is continued uncertainty about exactly when children will return to school and this may well vary across the different countries and regions of the United Kingdom. However, we would ask that when schools do reopen, that it is recognised that this is not the time to play ‘curriculum catch-up’. Children need time to readjust to school life and reconnect with teachers and peers, rather than worrying about learning.
How schools can support wellbeing through promoting play
The challenge now for the Government and devolved nations is to balance reopening schools and keeping children, parents and teachers safe, whilst maintaining the benefits of play to wellbeing. In light of guidance from the Office for National Statistics, that children are just as likely to catch the virus, any planned return would need to be handled extremely carefully. But extreme physical distancing measures such as those pictured in France last week will inevitably do more harm than good to already vulnerable children.
We suggest that the Departments for Education across the UK could produce short-term guidance for schools to help them support children’s wellbeing and physical safety. This guidance could include UN advice, as noted in General Comment 17, in the following four areas to promote children’s right to play.
- Physical environment of settings – The playground environment can be adapted to enable safe, creative play, and make the school more play-friendly. Schools can use fun equipment and/or visual referencing to promote physical distancing. Where feasible, could the playground be available for the whole day to enable extended outdoor access for more children, or could the school field or forest school site be better utilised?
- Structure of the day – The guidance could support schools to find ways to develop a more responsive and flexible structure to allow teachers to adapt to the needs of their pupils and provide more time and opportunity for outdoor play and learning.
- Curriculum demands – Given what we know about the impact of trauma and upheaval on learning, we would recommend that curriculum demands on children and teachers be reduced, to allow opportunities for play, emotional growth and social connection. Child-led learning experiences which facilitate free play could ensure no child gets left behind. As cultural and arts activities have been restricted during lockdown, how can these be reintroduced via school curricula?
- Educational pedagogy – The UN describes the importance of learning environments being active and participatory. Schools can make playful activities central to learning, for older children as well as for those in the early years. Recent research from The University of Manchester found that where the boundaries between schoolwork and play were more ‘blurred’, children felt a greater sense of control over their own learning experience.
Playing is the most natural and enjoyable way for children to keep well and be happy. It is their way of supporting their own health and wellbeing. It is vital that efforts to improve wellbeing in schools should focus on providing sufficient time and space for play.
The UN states that, for children, play “can restore a sense of identity, help them make meaning of what has happened to them, and enable them experience fun and enjoyment.” Recognising the importance of play at this point in time could be an enormous step forward, in terms of protecting the mental health and wellbeing of our children, and of future generations.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.