Play is one of the most basic of all human and animal activities. It’s an opportunity for exercising and improving our brains. And for young children, it’s both pleasurable and the best way to learn to solve problems, relate to their peers, follow rules, and understand emotions.

COVID-19 has transformed children’s play in the past year. Mandates for social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and sheltering in place separated older children and adults from their family and friends. And these restrictions made it difficult for younger children to participate in their normal activities during the early phases of the pandemic. 

By Pressmaster.

Will children play in groups after the pandemic?

Source: By Pressmaster.

As we have progressed to partial returns to school and small-group activities, younger kids are still limited in how they can play with their peers, often need to communicate through masks, and may miss the physical affection they previously received from their peers and teachers. In contrast to tweens and teens who have social media and some mobility, younger children are more isolated and are rarely able to go on playdates with their friends, or even see their relatives. Their main playmates have become their parents and older siblings.

Current trends include restrictions on sharing toys, no-contact gym classes, and rules against playing games involving touching one another, such as tag, musical chairs, Red Rover, and Marco Polo. Playing on playgrounds and sports such as basketball are limited. After-school classes and activities such as gymnastics, dance, football, and karate are restricted through social distancing, loss of touch, and the number of children to interact with.

If this is the end of play as we know it, we need to adapt children’s play so they do not suffer from its loss—and we are already seeing some changes. 

COVID-19 restrictions of play activities resulted in more screen-based play than in the past. For many years, pediatricians and other experts have cautioned parents around the type and amount of digital play they allow for young children. However given the lack of alternatives during the pandemic, screen play has become more popular and is being leveraged as a tool for learning and interaction with other peers. 

COVID-19 play restrictions have also resulted in parents spending more time playing with their children. Experts have cautioned parents against negating children’s opportunities to learn problem-solving and self-reliance skills on their own by becoming too involved as helicopter parents—protecting their children from perceived dangers of an outside world or from failure. 

An indirect side effect of the loss of play for younger children is less vigorous physical exercise. Common unstructured play for young children often involves running around playing tag or chase, kicking or tossing a ball, or scooting from one activity to another on a playground. Playing on the beach, park, or field has also been limited. Given the importance for physical activity and exercise for brain development, parents need to find play alternatives during COVID-19.

Although COVID-19 restrictions have had the benefit of giving many parents more time to play with their kids, adult-directed play tends to be less imaginative and creative. Kids who engage in imaginative role-play with their peers—such as playing house, school, or superheroes—are able to take on new roles and imagine what it would be to act like an adult. They have a chance to do this only when they can play with others. COVID-19 restrictions often limit this type of imaginative play to solitary or sibling play.

So what will be the long-term effects of COVID-19 on children’s play and their subsequent social and emotional development? Will it be the end of play as we know it? If COVID-19 restrictions end soon, the impact should be modest. Parents, teachers, and older siblings are taking a different role with younger children where play may be a bit more structured, but still an opportunity for learning. But it does appear that children’s play will be different in the short term. For example, how often will kids be able to get together with kids they don’t know on playgrounds? In schools and daycare settings, sharing toys is restricted, so children now often engage in solitary play and the emphasis is on learning to sanitize rather than share. Classrooms with fewer kids are becoming the norm, and many parents are choosing to eliminate extracurricular activities to reduce the odds of infection.

Given the crucial importance of play in the lives of younger children, it’s imperative that adults consider how they can broaden the types of play children can engage in during COVID-19. For some, that may mean using technology to engage in virtual play. Parents now have the time and reason to play alongside their kids. Families might consider purchasing toys or tools that promote imaginative and creative play, such as art supplies, action figures, Legos, blocks, dolls, and stuffed animals. Having opportunities to get outside and to be physically active is crucial for children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. That might mean going to the playground early in the morning before other kids are there or finding a few families to form your own play pod. 

COVID-19 does not have to be the end of play as we know it, but parents and educators need to recognize the importance of children’s play and ensure that kids are still having fun, interacting with other kids, and have alternative opportunities for play.

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