The COVID-19 pandemic required many children to make an abrupt transition from the school environment to remote learning from home. This unpredictable situation gave rise to anxiety for both adults and children. Many countries are now concerned with helping children catch up on the learning they have missed. But in this focus on academics, are we losing sight of the importance of play in supporting children’s learning and wellbeing?

Play promotes children’s wellbeing and helps them process hardship. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a fundamental right to participate freely in play. In addition to enhancing wellbeing, play has a positive effect on all kinds of learning. Through play, children learn important executive function skills, such as self-control, which in turn support problem-solving and enable children to cooperate with others. Spatial reasoning – the ability to think about our own location and the location of objects, how they look and how they fit into the environment – can be developed through playful, physical exploration. Manipulating objects of different sizes, building a den, or searching for hiding places, for example, are all useful in developing these skills.

“Play has a positive effect on all kinds of learning.”

It is not only physical play that produces learning benefits. Digital play, too, through video games and online apps, can enhance cognitive skills. For example, playing action video games helps to develop focus and sustained attention. While there are concerns that children may spend too much time on screens, active participation in screen-based activities – for example, playing online games with parents or caregivers, or cooperative games with friends – is associated with positive outcomes such as imaginative play and improved language development. Although online play allowed many children to socialise with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, other children lacked access to digital technology during that period. Some missed out on vital educational and developmental opportunities, further widening the learning gap.

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Play during times of crisis

In times of crisis, play may be threatened – but it can also help children cope with difficult situations. One of the greatest threats to children’s play is the humanitarian crisis caused by forced displacement. Almost 90 million people were displaced in 2021, nearly half of them children. Play is disrupted when children are in transit or in temporary accommodation, but finding opportunities to play, even in such precarious situations, can help children create meaning in their everyday lives and develop trustful relationships. Facilitating play during times of crisis can have important benefits.

“During the global COVID-19 pandemic, not all children enjoyed the same opportunities to play.”

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, not all children enjoyed the same opportunities to play. For some, school closures and restrictions merely meant that play shifted to home, with family and caregivers and with continued access to hobbies and digital tools. Others, especially vulnerable children, or those with responsibility for caring for family members, had much less freedom to play and faced mounting risks and pressures at home. Although there were some positive experiences, such as discovering new opportunities for play, many children were restricted in their outdoor and cooperative play. Some researchers express concern that the COVID-19 pandemic reduced children’s opportunities to play, but they also point out that it has provided an opportunity to emphasise and advocate for children’s fundamental right to play.

Children’s opportunities to play should not be compromised

In many countries around the world, the pressure is on to close the learning gap. The UK government, for example, has pledged billions of pounds to support children academically. Parents were encouraged to support catch-up activities in the holidays, too. However, the resources that are being provided focus on tutoring in academic subjects, and while it is imperative to support struggling students as they seek to catch up academically, children must also have time to play, explore and learn freely. Given the important role of play in learning, as well as in dealing with crisis situations, we must avoid limiting children’s opportunities to play. Children need to be given a chance to catch up on the developmental opportunities they have missed – including the opportunity to develop the broader skills that can be gained through social play and exploration.

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