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Coronavirus: just letting children play will help them, and their parents, cope

This week the majority of children across the UK are not in school. Instead, they’re at home, many of them under the care of parents who are expected to work at the same time.

As soon as it was announced that schools would close, homeschool timetables and tips began to appear on social media. Google searches for “homeschool timetable” in the past week were almost 200 times higher than the average of the previous year. But should parents be expected to recreate school at home? The evidence shows that, at this uncertain time, supporting children’s play should be a vital part of the picture – for their own mental health and for the wellbeing of the entire family.

As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all confronted with uncertainty. Research tells us that uncertainty increases anxiety and worry in both children and adults. We cannot remove much of the uncertainty we currently face, but what we can do is look for opportunities to feel some certainty and control. For this reason, following a normal routine where possible and having some structure to the day is likely to be useful for children and for parents. Within this, though, everyone needs to be realistic about their expectations.

Unusual circumstances

In normal circumstances, homeschooling is a conscious, long-term choice made by parents who choose to take responsibility for their child’s education. If a child is home because their school has been closed due to a pandemic, this is not homeschooling.

Parents who homeschool don’t typically attempt to work from home while educating their children, and they rarely spend the whole day at home. The present situation is entirely different. Attempting to school children at home puts pressure on parents at a time when anxiety is high. This is not helpful for them or their children.

Plastic bottles and boxes that might normally be recycled can be used for creative play.

An alternative is to let children play. This is especially important for primary school aged children. During free play, children decide what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to start and stop.

The benefits of free play are wide-ranging. When children have more opportunities for free play, they have better physical and mental health. It significantly decreases their stress levels and, importantly, it facilitates learning.

A sense of control

The role of adults is to provide physical and psychological space, and resources that support the child’s play. They should only join in or interfere with the play if the child asks them to. Free play allows children to follow their interests and can provide a sense of control and independence, which are particularly important at this time. It is absolutely fine to let children get on with things if they are safe and having fun. In fact, it is a win-win.

Examples of free-play activities include building dens inside, dressing up, play dough or messy play. Parents can help with creative play by keeping boxes, bottles and card that would usually go in the recycling and letting children work out what they want to do with it. Inspiration can come from nature: send children on garden bug hunts or cloud watching. And be willing to let them get bored. Boredom stimulates creativity.

Let children choose the direction of their play.

Given the current guidance that everyone should stay at home wherever possible, children’s play will necessarily be restricted. The good news is that there are a lot of brilliant ideas online about how to support children’s play. These include “I’m bored” activities from Play Scotland and Play Wales. Learning through Landscapes offers ideas for play linked to nature, for both younger and older children.

Free play can also help children make sense of things they find hard to understand. In the current context, this means that parents might observe children playing coronavirus games or games where there is a theme of illness or death. This is normal, and probably helpful for the child to understand what they are experiencing. There is no need to stop this kind of play, but parents could use it to stimulate later conversations if they are concerned about their child.

Parents know their children better than anyone. Some will be quite happy with maths, followed by English, followed by handwriting – but many others won’t. Regardless, play supports the emotional wellbeing of every child. It allows them some control, and relieves the pressure on parents to become a substitute teacher, improving the mental health of the whole family. All children need time and space for free play every day, now possibly more than ever.

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