Children’s play in the COVID-19 pandemic

Why do children need play now more than ever, and how can parents engage their children in high-quality play activities?

“While I am preparing dinner, I see my oldest daughter (Sefae, age 7) playing outside. She is wearing one of our face masks and pretends to be a shop owner. All the supplies are neatly placed on a picnic table. One of her friends, also wearing a face mask, joins her and helps with pricing the items. After a while, some other kids from the neighborhood join them in the role of guard or customer.”

“During dinner, I ask my daughter what they were playing. Sefae: ‘We opened a new shop and we had a lot of customers. Yasmine and Max were the guards and made sure nobody was stealing and that all the customers kept some distance from one another. We had to wear face masks because of corona.’”

“Join your child and play along!”

So speaks one of the authors of this piece. For young children, play provides an important context to explore the world, gain new knowledge, and develop language and social abilities. In the example above, we can see how Sefae and her friends are playing as if they work in a shop. In this imitation of a real-world activity, they learn about different roles and the discourse associated with these roles. They also negotiate rules, communicate with one another, and practice their social skills. We also see how they incorporate elements of their new reality — wearing face masks and practicing physical distancing — as a way to deal with or understand the changes in their environment.

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, play has become more important than ever before. First, children are increasingly confronted with insecurity and changes. For example, they see people wearing face masks, find that new rules apply in school, and might notice how their parents or caregivers struggle with issues like health or financial instability. Play can be an important activity for children to cope with, process, and understand these changes. Second, as schools close or teachers have to quarantine, there is less time for children to engage in high-quality play activities. Such play activities can provide a unique learning context for the development of different cognitive domains.

What are high-quality play activities? One important aspect that contributes to high-quality play is the role of adults. Research shows that guided play activities in which adults play along, ask questions, follow-up on what their children say, and broaden the activity support children’s learning. This is not easy! Most parents are great as parents, but they might not be fully equipped to design meaningful play activities, connect these activities to learning, and participate in a responsive and sensitive manner.

“For young children, play provides an important context to explore the world, gain new knowledge, and develop their language and social abilities.”

How can we make sure children keep playing during this pandemic? Here are four evidence-informed suggestions:

First, during role play, children reenact the world around them (as shown in the example of Sefae and her friends). The social roles of customer, shop owner, or guard were played out using different props. In research on play, props are one of the most critical elements of children’s play (Leong & Bodrova, 2012). But before you rush online to buy new toys and props, bear in mind that straightforward, realistic toys are not necessary for successful role play. Most realistic toys are suitable for only one type of play scenario, thus resulting in limited use. In contrast, using common household objects — combined with a young child’s imagination — opens a world of endless possibilities. The imagination of a child can transform a piece of cardboard, a broom, or a wooden stick into meaningful props. Parents should encourage children to use materials that offer open-ended opportunities for transformation and provide them with a variety of props.

Second, besides role play, parents have numerous opportunities to engage their children in object-oriented play. Playing with objects is an accessible activity that benefits young children’s cognitive development. For example, research has shown that playing with blocks provides a unique context in which children learn spatial language (words like in, out, on top, and behind). To guide object-oriented play, parents can provide objects and materials (e.g., blocks, cars), play along, talk, give suggestions, and ask questions (e.g., “How can we make our building higher?” “Can you pass me that big block?” “What do we need to build a (…)?”). Furthermore, schools can support parents in increasing the quality of play activities at home, for example, by providing ideas for play scenarios. Some pictures that depict different stages of a building under construction can help parents guide their children and increase the level of quality of play activities.

Third, parents are allowed to participate in their child’s play. In fact, young children often need some guidance from adults. Before starting a play activity, parents can discuss what cultural activity the children want to imitate or what materials they would like to play with. You can ask which roles are involved in this activity, who will play what role, and what kind of behaviors are suitable for these roles, as well as which props or materials are needed. Parents can also discuss different scenarios, for example, “What will happen?” or “What would you like to build?” During a play activity, parents can broaden or deepen the activity by introducing new props, materials, roles, language, and behaviors, thereby enriching children’s experience. However, before parents join children in play, they should observe what the children are doing, what is happening, and what the conversation is about. Then, they can decide how to raise the play activity to a higher level without disturbing the child’s play. In other words, look carefully, but don’t just stand on the side and watch: Join your child and play along! Occasionally, parents can take a picture during a play activity and send it to their child’s teacher. Teachers can use these pictures as a starting point for classroom talk or to connect play at home with play in school.

Finally, as in the example of Sefae, during mealtimes, parents can have interesting and stimulating conversations with their children about their play activities. For example, they can ask: “What were you playing?” or say: “I noticed that you were talking about (…); is that correct?” or invite: “During your role play you were (…); can you say more about that?” These small conversations can give parents more insight in their children’s world, thoughts, knowledge, and concerns, and can support children’s language development (Snow & Beals, 2006). And children’s answers might provide parents with interesting leads for planning the next day’s play activity.

Header photo: Henry Burrows. Creative Commons. 

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