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Why Play? Why now?

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Trigger Warning: COVID-19 and 9/11

Why is play so important? Play is important because it supports many of the key areas of development: communication, cognitive development, relationships, problem solving, team work and managing emotions. It provides a safe outlet for children to express thoughts and feelings, which will then enable adults to use play to support healing and growth. Learning-through-play is a process where teaching staff facilitate child-led discovery, providing a safe and playful environment where children can explore, observe and develop curiosity.

Why Now? As the world is turned upside down amid the Covid-19 Crisis, and where children are distance-learning away their normal settings, now more than ever is the learning-through-play approach vital. Very young children, such as children in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) do not have the vocabulary or emotional literacy to articulate complex emotions and, for the most part wont have the knowledge of what has happened. We know from Piaget’s research in 1962 that children are not developmentally ready to engage in abstract thought until approximately the age of 11, this means that younger children simply will not be able to comprehend the enormity of what has happened. Unfortunately however they will be painfully aware that their usual pattern and routine had been completely and abruptly, disrupted. Whenever it is deemed appropriate for lockdown to be lifted and for settings return to normal, many children will still be reeling from the loss of routine, loss of contact and socialisation and, sadly for some, a physical and real loss of loved ones.

Learning-through-play is already widely embraced, and rightly so, but now it is even more poignant. The ongoing emotional wellbeing of our children will rely on vast opportunities to play and to express thoughts and feelings without criticism and within held, safe boundaries. Adults, in most cases teaching staff, will need to be able to hold space for children, to validate their complex emotions and to redirect any resulting behaviours. We know that children absorb environmental signage as a by-product of play, and so the focus on emotional literacy signage, language and modelling also needs to be increased.

Play is an incredibly effective and well-established form of therapy for children, and it must now be widely used as a tool for reintegration and socialisation. Gary L. Landreth writes in ‘Play Therapy – The Art of the Relationship’ that ‘emotionally significant experiences are given meaningful expression through play. A major function of play is the changing of what may be unmanageable in reality to manageable situations through symbolic representation.’ He goes on to say ‘A vivid reminder of differences in the way children and adults express their feelings and reactions occurred in the days and weeks following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre buildings in New York on September 11, 2001. Adults told and retold their experience of shock and terror. Children who suffered through the same experience almost never talked about it. Their fearful reactions were expressed through their play. The children built towers out of blocks and crashed airplanes into them. Buildings burned and crashed to the ground, sirens wailed, people were kills and injured, and ambulances too them to the hospital. A 3-year-old child in play therapy repeatedly crashed a helicopter into the wall, watched it fall to the floor, and said vehemently, “I hate you helicopter! I hate you helicopter!”... For children to ‘play out’ their experiences and feelings is the most natural dynamic and self-healing process in which they can engage’.' Some children will have been completely traumatised by the effects of the Corona Virus, others they may only be aware of the bare minimum, some may have overheard news bulletins or adult conversations that have caused worry or anxiety. The play and art that will be produced following this pandemic, will be varied and telling. I worry that teaching staff will not have the time or resources to be able to meet all the emotional needs of their students, in addition to the educational pressures set by the government.

I don’t pose as a child therapist, or an expert in processing trauma, but I am writing as a Behaviour Specialist who has worked with many hundreds of children who have suffered great hardships and trauma. My advice to you all, give children time- returning to school will be a huge shock to the system. When school starters begin Reception Class their entry is staggered, it is phased with plenty of family involvement in the process. It would be ideal for this to be a case for all children following the lift of lockdown, reintegration is such an important process to get right. My time in Behaviour taught me that how a school handles a reintegration process can make or break the success of the student within that particular placement- schools simply must not set students up to fail there is too much at stake. Our children are now probably enjoying much more free-play than ever before, to have this abruptly taken away from them, will be a frustrating and emotionally charged adaptation for them to make. Many children will experience separation anxiety perhaps for the first time, having to separate from their primary caregivers after such an intense period of time, and this may result in unhealthy attachments to teaching staff, are staff trained and prepared with ways to deal with this? As an experienced mother, and I have seen first hand the impact of this virus upon my own children, who are largely sheltered from its grim reality. I cannot begin to imagine the stress and worry that Covid-19 has had on the children of Key Workers, or those children who come from difficult, unpredictable or unstable homes.

Often, the most effective way to boost a child’s confidence, especially when teaching something new, is to ask them to complete a task that you KNOW they can achieve. This allows them a taste of success, gives them a hit of dopamine and encourages their desire to progress and move forward – when we already feel good, we are much more willing to try something new. I implore my sons' wonderful teachers, to go back to basics, to reignite a love of learning and socialising, to allow plenty of opportunity for discovery and play, to regularly check-in with their class, and to go gently. The sudden, loud, chaotic return to the classroom may be too much of a sensory overload for students who have been with only one other human for weeks or maybe months (at the time of writing the UK had been under lockdown conditions for five weeks). Be rid worksheets and reading assessments, and for now, focus on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of our children. Effort and time invested now will save time, resources and energy spent fighting fires and tackling symptomatic behaviours later. Our teachers will also need extra support, as Key Workers they continued to put themselves in harms way, continued to teach, and care for our children.

Whilst I am confident that our EYFS and Key Stage 1 teams will embrace a play-based transition, from home to school, I am not so confident that Key Stage 2 and above will have the same natural instincts. The lower years have more opportunity to be playful, whereas this is not the case for years 3 (children aged 7) onwards.

I fear that, if nation-wide reintegration is handled badly by Government guidelines, with statistics at the heart, rather than child-wellbeing, we will see an entire generation who have not been given the opportunity to release and explore these emotions properly, they will be damaged and the repercussions will be severe. Save our children, let them express themselves, let them socialise, let them PLAY.

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