It’s hard to know exactly how we’re going to come out of lockdown, despite the rumours and the guesses. It’s certainly a complex challenge to negotiate, but in the midst of this dilemma a group of several experts from education, child development, psychology, and child psychiatry are trying to make sure that children’s wellbeing is put front and centre.
The group’s initiative is called Play First, and they want to make sure that children’s need to play is prioritised as much as their need to catch up academically, as they return to school. They’ve written a letter to MP Gavin Williamson with some practical advice on how to achieve this safely (like children taking turns to play in small groups) along with a clear summary of the evidence that their views are based on.
Play is autotelic: which means it’s intrinsically rewarding in and of itself, not because of something that it leads to. When children (or adults) play, it’s because they enjoy it. In an education system where children have earlier exams and large amounts of their time mapped out for homework and revision, having room to do just what they want can feel rare.
Play makes children feel happier. And even play that is to do with difficult subjects, can help children to understand and manage sad and unhappy feelings and make sense of tricky circumstances. Although play is fun in itself, it also has many developmental benefits. As Shirley Reynolds, one of the Playfirst group, and Professor of Psychology at Reading University, explained:
“Play is essential for children’s well being…It supports and scaffolds their cognitive development – creativity, organisation, planning, problem solving – and it’s how they learn about emotional and social skills, develop friendships, explore their own identity and their ‘self’”
Under lockdown children have had fewer opportunities to play with others, and some children from households where there are large amounts of stress or even abuse will have had an awful time. For all children, even if they’ve had the chance to play with siblings, they will have missed out on the usual pleasures (and dramas) of friendships. Shirley is clear that “ If children are expected to return to school without ‘playful’ contact with their friends they will be confused, frustrated, worried and sad. It may exacerbate feelings of loneliness…”
If children have to return to school without chances to play, it’s likely to feel weird and scary. If we were asked to go back to work without any space to have those chats that seem inconsequential but are vital for relationships then we would find it odd too. Even in the most staid office there are usually opportunities for playful conversation which allow us to feel connected and to blow off steam.
We lose chances to play as we get older, often seeing things as more about the goal we are trying to reach than pure enjoyment of the thing itself. At school there is still some opportunity for children to feel playful, to do the things they get pleasure from for their own sake, and maybe at this time more than ever, we all need a bit of that.
If you want to read more about play there’s a chapter on it in my book Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are. Michael Rosen has written a whole book on it – his Book of Play. There’s also a rapid review of evidence related to children and social isolation which was part of the evidence the group considered. And this recording of philosopher Alan Watts talking about Music & Life is very relevant to life as play and is always worth a listen/watch.