I read a really interesting article in the Guardian last weekend, looking at how we should be helping children recover from the pandemic. There are some suggestions that children need to be given catch-up summer schools and an extended school day over the next few months to try and mitigate for the loss of education during the lockdowns. A group of leading child development experts called “PlayFirstUK” have a very different view. They have warned that the intensive “catch-up” plans may worsen children’s mental health and have a negative effect on longer term learning. They suggest instead a “Summer of play” to allow parents and children the chance to recover from the stress of lockdowns.
It’s certainly tempting to want to increase the teaching and studying when we think about the many months of missed opportunities and feel panicked about our children’s futures. What we should remember though, is that stressed children and young people don’t learn easily. We have many children who are suffering from anxiety, frustration, low self-esteem and feelings of isolation because of their experiences over the last year. So, can play actually help? The answer is an emphatic “yes”! Children and adults alike have had to cope with feelings of uncertainty and worry that have wired their nervous systems in to an adrenalized fight/flight response in recent months. Play is a way of quietening down this response and helps both parents and children feel soothed and calmer as “feel good” hormones are released during this opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves.
Many children have struggled with managing their emotions, feeling unable to concentrate and reduced social skills during the pandemic. Play is actually a great vehicle for parents to gently coach their children to help increase these skills. Commenting on their ability to be calm and focused as they build a creation out of Lego, noticing how well they are waiting for their turn playing cards and praising them for keeping on trying as they do a craft activity will help them start to internalise this learning. Teenagers too will benefit from working on a project, learning to cook a simple meal or bake whilst supported by a parent. Any hobby or interest will bring out the playful, restorative opportunities which are experienced when we have fun and relax. This is the key to healing the difficult times we have all faced- time to run and play, to laugh and enjoy spending time together- the best medicine for our children’s futures.