By Dr Anita Soni, Academic and professional tutor, School of Education, University of Birmingham and Oliver Wilson, Head Teacher, Woodhouse Primary School (and University of Birmingham ITE alumnus).
“For younger children, it is essential that families don’t ignore play, but actively encourage it. While older children can usually socialise online with their friends, via a range of means, that isn’t something that is readily available to younger children.”
At the time of writing, many children will have spent three months at home rather than going to school or nursery. It now looks, for some, like this will extend to nearly six months as the limited available places in settings continue to be filled by those deemed to be in priority groups.
There is widespread understanding that all of this had to happen due to the Covid-19 crisis, but there are also concerns about the impact this will have had on all children. While much of the focus has been on those in Year 10 and 12 who are due to sit exams next year, it is important to not overlook the very youngest, many of whom had just started their journey through the education system when lockdown was implemented.
For this group, play is key. Not only because it supports children’s development and learning – it is centre stage in the Early Years Foundation Stage framework which all settings for birth to five years need to adhere to, after all – but because it also boosts happiness, enhances confidence and supports communication. And play can take so many forms: the imaginative games of a child on their own, pretending with friends to be superheroes/medics/teachers and even play fighting. All these forms of play, and so many more, help children to learn important skills such as collaboration, negotiation, planning, creativity… all while having fun!
With media headlines talking of ‘missed learning,’ some parents and carers are worried about their children falling behind their peers academically, but less emphasis seems to be placed on children falling behind with ‘playing’. Is it because play is perceived as simple or not as important as learning in an academic sense?
For younger children, it is essential that families don’t ignore play, but actively encourage it. While older children can usually socialise online with their friends, via a range of means, that isn’t something that is readily available to younger children. There have been reports of younger children experiencing loneliness and poor wellbeing, because in the absence of attending nursery or school where there are others of a similar age and with similar interests, they are reliant on those they live with to fill this void. And it is particularly difficult for children with no siblings, and especially those in single parent families and/or with limited or no internet access.
This isn’t to say that measures haven’t been put in place to mitigate for this lack of social contact. Phone calls and creative use of virtual learning platforms have helped, but, quite frankly, it simply isn’t the same. Younger children, both in and out of settings, are really missing their friends, their favourite adults, and the wide range of toys they usually have access to, as well as play equipment such as climbing frames and sand, which are also cordoned off in parks and public spaces.
So as restrictions continue – though they are gradually being lifted – and the summer holidays beckon, families need to focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t. Gardening, cooking, nature walks and art projects are wonderful ways of forging deeper connections as well as getting in some of that learning that so many are anxious about. But don’t overlook play. Having fun is such a simple and effective way of creating positive memories, and that’s exactly what we want our children to face the future with.