Playing Forms the Foundation for Learning | Child & Family Blog
Photo: Segun Osunyomi. Unsplash. 

Playing and the COVID-19 pandemic

By Lisa A. Gennetian and , | November 2020 

Play positions us for resilience and survival, which can get us and our children through this pandemic.

In her creative homemade short film, The Lucky Ones, Rachel Morrison reflects on her favorite memories as a 5 year old of ice cream for breakfast and bevies of balloons. Then she segues into scenes of her 5-year-old son with cape and swords running through dunes at a nearby beach. She describes how much he, even at the young age of 5, acutely feels the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and misses his friends and teachers. This quite blissful introduction abruptly shifts as Morrison reflects on how those playful memories of her 5-year-old self were actually intimate moments with her mother in the hospital battling cancer. The pangs of isolation undercutting these reflections pivot back to her son: What will he remember of this unusual pandemic? His play on the beach with swords and capes interwoven with so much time spent with a sibling and parents, or something else?

This poignant short film captures so much about play and its evolutionary buffer. Play cements pleasant memories. Play is primal. Play is not only an expressive outlet for curating and preserving our own well-being, but also connects us with others. Play positions us for resilience and survival.

“As a society, we undervalue play.”

If this is true, why aren’t we hearing more about the value of play for children during this pandemic? Moreover, how might play be an avenue for learning or serving as a buffer against even more anticipated learning loss as the pandemic continues?

One reason is that as a society, we undervalue play. Play’s long-term benefits for economic health and general well-being are neither easy to quantify nor quantified the way, for example, we quantify metrics on the benefits of formal and structured early education (as James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has done). Some early childhood experts are even complicit: Good intentions to elevate information and education about the types of parent interactions and environments that support early childhood development have unintentionally contributed to imposing more stress on structure and deliberateness at the cost of spontaneity.

Another reason is that we view play as a luxury, something that is frivolous and for the rich or lazy. We’ve been wired to see play as an “extra” rather than as a core ingredient. Unlike breakfast, a good night’s sleep, and tooth brushing, play is not considered a building block to healthy living.

“Play, and the habit of spontaneous play, can help support parents and children through this pandemic.”

Two years before the pandemic, in 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics for the first time published a public statement on the benefits of childhood play. They did this in part due to concerns about recommendations that tilted toward overstructured, overly formalized, and overly controlled environments for children. Managing the tension of spontaneous, unstructured play with the directive that parents hear about routine, predictability, and daily practice of positive interactions with children has and can be confusing (as I’ve previously written). Some progress has been made in addressing this tension (e.g., through initiatives such as Playful Learning Landscapes, an effort reinforce learning more naturally through public spaces and parks as locations for unfettered play).

Photo: Paige Cody. Unsplash.

COVID-19 has had and will continue to have devastating impacts on children of all ages. Parents’ loss of jobs and income, lockdowns in homes with adults who are sometimes abusive and neglectful, separation from school and early care and education, distance from peers, and disruption of monitoring by health and other professionals will have long-term negative consequences. We have many reasons to be worried about the next generation and the likely increases in socioeconomic and racial disparities. Could play be the silver lining in this gloomy scenario?

Indeed, evolution might have positioned children well: No pandemic can fully kidnap their innate imagination and impulse to play (though it can drain their capacity to embrace and enjoy it). For younger children, whether turning basements into beaches or backyards into butterfly gardens, or conjuring a new influx of imaginary friends, playful activities are stepping stones to learning in all the ways educators, economists, and developmentalists tout as predictors of long term well-being. The social skills developed with imaginary friends, and the math skills incorporated into cooking and designing beaches are seedlings of the cognitive and emotional foundations children need to thrive. Considerable research shows a variety of ways that, for example, rough-and-tumble play improves children’s social cognition, social competence, and spatial ability, and imaginative or pretend play can improve children’s creativity and psychological and moral development. In fact, childhoods that are deprived of play might be harmful to children.

“The role of intuitive play, and its place in daily habits, is more important now than ever.”

For older children, increased time in the digital world can lead to reduced physical activity and isolation. The counterbalance can be found in the ways the digital world has sparked creativity—songs, videos, new ways of communicating across large groups of peers.

The role of intuitive play, and its place in daily habits, is more important now than ever. Conventional modes of learning have been taken away from many families, with emotional and economic stress escalating as new struggles of getting food on the table, and balancing children’s schooling and work have increased. Conventional places to play may be constrained and unsafe, whether at home, at school, or in publicly available spaces.

The underlying message of the AAP in 2018 is one worth revisiting now: Play, and the habit of spontaneous play, can help support parents and children through this pandemic. This might be the moment to validate that intuitive play counts as play and play counts as learning. The good news is that this message does not have to emerge from a new committee of scientists or public health experts to inform strict protocols to succeed.

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