As I walk around my local park one sight in particular brings a lump to my throat; the empty children’s playground, its slides, swings and climbing frames bound in red and white tape and COVID-19 notices announcing this public facility is closed until further notice. Throughout the pandemic parents and their children have continued to use the park, albeit without their usual facilities, and with the recent good weather and loosening of ‘lockdown’ measures this has been more and more evident. Also, the sound of children at play in gardens and any green space has been a welcome reminder of what is and should be normal and what keeps us well. However, I’ve worked in community and education settings for too long to think that all children have been able to play out and it is for this reason that I have been thinking a lot about the importance of play for everyone.
The word ‘play’ comes from the old English word pleg (i)an, which means ‘to exercise’ and derives from the word plegia ‘brisk movement’. It relates to the Middle Dutch pleien ‘leap for joy, dance’. Activity, positive affect, movement and speed are all evident in most children’s play and even just observing children at play let alone joining in can produce similar effects in adults. But play isn’t just about enjoyment it is a crucial human activity and everyone needs it. Sadly, many adults don’t do much playing and can even be dismissive or disdainful of anything that pertains to play and I have to admit, when I see the adults who have stood on their podiums each day to deliver their messages about staying at home, staying alert, saving public services etc. and the accompanying grim statistics and science to support these it is hard to imagine them at play.
For children, who, by definition, are at an early stage of development, play is necessary and important throughout childhood and beyond. Numerous child development theorists, research studies and related literature highlight and underline the key role and function of play in all aspects of development, i.e. physical, cognitive, social, emotional, behavioural and language. It is through play that children learn about the world, including themselves and others in it. As Einstein said:
“Play is the highest form of research.”
So parents and carers during lockdown and without friends, extended family and care and school provision, have their work cut out. Over the last couple of decades government and Health and Education in particular, have produced a lot of official guidance and policy, endorsing children’s right to play and large sums of money have been pledged to support this. Early Years’ and schools have played an important part in this movement and many teachers and childcare professionals have developed great expertise in supporting children’s play and helping parents to do so as well. Of course, during the ‘current situation’, their expertise has been available in some measure through home schooling and support programmes, particularly for nursery and foundation stage children but the fact that this has been dependent upon technology means that for a large section of the population, more than likely, the same as the ones who don’t have gardens and nice green spaces nearby, computers, laptops, even smart phones, are just not available. It is true that television for children can be helpful in stimulating play and it even prompts creative, imaginary and educative play. However, the non-interactive and largely sedentary and vicarious nature of watching TV is no substitute for real-time, situated and sometimes social play.
As we see signs of the pandemic receding and we try to ‘stay alert’ and take sensible measures it is important that amongst the aspects of life that we have done without, play is seen as a priority and every possible step taken to make sure children and ideally, everyone else, play more. Opening park playgrounds, along with the schools, should be a priority. As for the question of how much children can be expected to socially distance, that is something everyone has to work with but I am fairly certain that a ‘micro-managing’ approach to social interaction is probably doomed to failure. We have to teach our children about safe measures without scaring or overloading them and whilst we are doing so we may well find that we learn from them how to manage living life as fully and safely as possible.