No shared play in lockdown was bad for small children

·6-min read
A little girl is looking out of a window at home.  She is sitting under a rainbow and fairy lights which have been displayed on the glass.  Stay at home social media campaign for coronavirus prevention.
A little girl is looking out of a window at home. She is sitting under a rainbow and fairy lights which have been displayed on the glass. Stay at home social media campaign for coronavirus prevention.

Parents of pre-school children say not being able to play with their friends during the pandemic has negatively affected their child, new research suggests. 

More than two in three (69%) parents say not being able to play with other children has had a negative impact, with more than half (56%) left worried about the effect this could have on their young child’s overall development.

The survey, by the Sutton Trust, of more than 500 parents of two to four-year-olds also found that 20% of parents feel that their child’s physical development had been impacted negatively, and 25% feel similarly about their language development.

“We know that the first five years of a child’s life are absolutely critical for their learning and development, and yet there are now many young children across the country who have spent a huge proportion of their short lives indoors, with little to no social interaction," says Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA).

“As such, it is no surprise that so many parents are so concerned about how the unprecedented restrictions of the pandemic might impact their children in the long term."

The Sutton Trust is now calling on the government to put the development and wellbeing of pre-school children at the heart of its education recovery plan.

Children in forest looking at leaves as a researcher together with the magnifying glass.
Children in forest looking at leaves as a researcher together with the magnifying glass.

The impact of lack of play on children

Social distancing regulations, schools and nursery closures and lockdown have reduced the opportunities for children to mix with their friends, and this lack of play has had an impact on wellbeing and development. 

"Children’s worlds have shrunk over the last 12 months - fewer social interactions, less travel and experience of new places, so fewer opportunities to learn new vocabulary, interact with different people and develop important communication skills," explains Dr. Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide.

"Communication skills are key for playing with other children and children encourage each other to play so communication and social skills are key to facilitating more play."

Read more: What's your child really doing online? Huge rise in 'harmful' searches triggers warning

According to Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford there are many benefits to children's play. 

"Play has great therapeutic value in enabling children to adapt to changes caused by the pandemic, and in helping facilitate a fresh understanding of sharing, being considerate to others, and looking after people," she explains. 

Read more: Are you 'comparenting'? 80% of mums fear they're getting it wrong

And “positively encouraging” children to play and exercise together, now that restrictions are lifting, will bring significant developmental benefits.

“For young children, time with their friends is really important; they need to be developing their social skills and playing is a way of them tackling difficult times," Dr Van Zwanenberg explains. 

“Play has so many benefits for young people, including brain development, language development, and helping them cope with stress, and it helps them with their physical development as obviously they jump and run around.”

Parents can help their children get the most out of play by making sure it includes a variety of different types of activity, and by taking a proactive part in it.

Watch: Extra exercise and more sleep could improve children's mental health. 

How parents can help encourage children to play post-lockdown

Encourage imaginative play

During the pandemic children have not been able to mix in the normal way, but according to child psychotherapist, Alison McClymont, imaginative play is a great way to encourage children to get back into play and mixing with other children. She suggests planning a treasure hunt. "All you need to do is plant various objects around the house or garden for your child and their friends to find," she explains. 

"This activity encourages children to come together and work as a team, to mix and to share in the joy of discovery."

Unlock their creative side

Art play is not about producing works that Picasso would be proud of, but according to McClymont it is a great way to bring children back together playing and can help to enhance their creative minds. 

"One of the foundational beliefs of creative therapies is that in every person there is creativity," she says. "Art can help encourage children to play together - to share together and to create together."

Read more: Parenting tips for blended families

Get them to role play

One of the best things about role play for children is the fact they get the chance to try on new roles. "They can experiment with as many different versions of themselves as they can imagine and use nature as their stage," McClymont suggests. "This is a low-cost play activity for children to do with their friends and gives them the freedom to grow in confidence together."

Children also learn lots from role-playing with adults. "Parents can role play certain scenarios with their children, to teach them new social skills they might not have practiced for a while," says Dr Van Zwanenberg. 

"For example; ‘Let’s pretend we are friends going to play at the playground and there is only one swing and we both want to go on it’. They can ‘role play’ how the child should respond and share. 

"This sort of role playing can teach children so much," Dr Van Zwanenberg adds. "They have to solve a problem and think about what is right and wrong and fair, and communicate all this."

Role play can be great for children's development. (Getty Images)
Role play can be great for children's development. (Getty Images)

Parents can also role-play scenarios that are likely to be different, post-lockdown.

"For example going to the supermarket and having to walk one way around it and leave space between themselves and others in the queue," Dr Van Zwanenberg suggests. "It will then not be so confusing for children when they experience this."

Try out ‘social story’ books

These are often used for young people on the autistic spectrum. "They describe common social scenarios young people might find themselves in, and how they should be handled," says Dr Van Zwanenberg. "They lead to discussion and could be helpful for young people if parents feel they will struggle with a return to normal social situations or changed ones."

Encourage them to take turns

According to Dr Van Zwanenberg turn taking is an important part of play for young children and often young people find this hard. "I would suggest playing family games that involve turn-taking, so young people get used to coping with this again," she says. 

Try an 'Emotion reading’ game

These can be fun and useful game to play with your child. "Write down an emotion on a piece of paper and take it in turns to act them out with body language and facial expressions," Dr Van Zwanenberg suggests.

"Often difficulties in the playground occur due to young people misreading each other's body language.”

Watch: Artist makes mural of 6,000 kids playing. 

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