What challenges are children and their families facing?
Since the Covid-19 pandemic first forced schools to shut across the world, there has been heated conversation about children’s ‘learning loss’ and how to make up for their ‘academic setbacks’.
What is getting less attention is how the pandemic might have affected children’s social and emotional wellbeing and skills. These are the sorts of skills and experiences that help children communicate well with others, play and share, handle meeting new people, and understand and navigate complex emotions. These socioemotional skills are vital for children and deserve our attention as we think about the changes children may have experienced over the last year. Research conducted by organisations such as the Parent Infant Foundation and the Early Intervention Foundation suggests that children, especially those aged 0 to 8 years, were the most likely to have had those skills affected.
How can play help?
As ‘play researchers’, we know that children’s play – with their parents, with their siblings or peers, and even on their own – can make a big difference to these skills, and to their overall wellbeing. In normal circumstances, a lot of time at school is dedicated to supporting young children’s socioemotional learning and development through play. But now that in-person teaching has resumed after a lengthy break, teachers may be juggling this in the face of pressure to focus on academic ‘catch-up’ to ensure their students are ‘ready’ for the next school year.
Fortunately, parents and caregivers at home can play a key role in helping children rebalance their social skills and emotional wellbeing by giving them more time to play, and by using play to help children readjust after the many changes they have faced over the past year. Some parents might feel pressured to curtail playtime in favour of spending extra time on academics, as so much attention has been given to the need for academic ‘catch-up’. But we’d encourage parents and caregivers to make sure that their children have time to play and to do a range of activities outside of school, and to shift the family’s focus onto play once everyone’s home.
We’ve thought about three key areas where parents can use play to help support their child’s socioemotional learning at home.
1) Feeling uncertain about being back at school: The return to in-person teaching may have caused worry for some children. Parents’ natural instinct might be to highlight positive points like seeing friends again, but it’s also possible that some children will miss family time or worry about friend dynamics. It’s important to offer children the chance to voice these concerns. Storytelling and role play are great ways to help children work through these emotions.
Picking out books which involve characters going through transitions or being brave, or acting out scenarios with toys could help children verbalise their thoughts and emotions. A friend of ours set up a ‘vaccination centre’ with her children and all of their dolls, which offered a great opportunity to talk about their fears of catching the virus at school, and how the vaccine worked, and when after-school playdates could resume.
2) Going back to socialising: It might feel strange for children to be back in a playground full of children again, but with COVID-related restrictions in place like extra distance and hygiene measures. Children will have to juggle the idea of ‘going back to normal’ with the reality that things are still not quite the way they used to be. For younger children, knowing what to expect is important. Creating songs or rhymes to help remember rules could be a lovely way to help children, without it feeling burdensome. Sabilah’s family has a rhyme: “When we’re 5 steps away, then we can play!” This is a handy reminder at the playground, and easy for children to remember and share with friends at school.
3) Getting used to routines again: Waking up at a specific time, sitting in timetabled classes, and having designated times for specific activities are all likely to be challenging and tiring for children after such a turbulent year. As a parent, you can protect a designated block of time within your child’s day for free play. This could help lessen the rushed feel of suddenly going back to routines and give families the chance for some of the ‘together time’ that they might have gotten used to over lockdown. Making those moments child-led can empower your child to take charge in a world where there is suddenly very little that’s likely to be in their control. Every evening, saying “let’s pick one game to play before bedtime” offers the ‘infrastructure’ to make play part of the day, without the ‘structure’ of other parts of the day. The research on the importance of this kind of ‘free play’ highlights that child-led play time is healthy for emotional and social development – exactly the kind of skill areas we’re confident parents can help their children with in the wake of the pandemic.
Transitioning to a post-lockdown world relies on children being able to learn, connect, and heal. By actively using play to help your children through some of these challenging transitions, as well as serving as a guardian of your child’s playtime, you can help your child navigate these tricky ongoing changes with care and thought exactly when they are likely to need it most.
Sabilah Eboo Alwani and Krishna Kulkarni
University of Cambridge PhD candidates, Faculty of Education