Both children and adults equate play with freedom, a time when you can become immersed in something of your choosing, with fewer boundaries and instructions.
But what happens when our freedom has been curtailed and we find ourselves in lockdown? Can play still be as carefree as it was before the coronavirus took over our lives?
Play is crucial for children’s development. By creating their own worlds, they will learn the art of problem solving, enact scenarios they may barely grasp in a bid to better understand them and develop coping mechanisms.
While the current scenario may appear to offer less scope for play regarding space and ready-made props, it could in fact provide the perfect landscape for richer and more imaginative play as schedules relax and we are thrown back on our own resources.
“It is vital that children spend time playing,” says Sharmila Gandhi, Head of Lower Primary at King’s College Alicante. “As we have an over-reliance on screens at the moment, it is essential that when children and families switch off, it’s not to watch the TV, but maybe to play games together, tell stories or simply to talk and laugh together.”
But, for adults juggling homeworking, domestic chores and the entirely new role of educator, being relaxed about what their children are ‘getting up to’ can be challenging.
“Set up open-ended activities,” suggests Rachel Davies, Head Teacher at King’s College Chamartín. “Don’t get over-involved with a prescribed outcome. If children are given the opportunity, they will become engaged in an activity for longer – exploring and creating rather than completing. This should give parents a bit more time to get their own work done.”
It can be hard for adults to allow their children this opportunity to explore and create as many of us have forgotten how to feel playful ourselves.
But our lack of control over current events is precisely what can allow a grown up to feel playful again. Maintaining all the standards we usually aspire to is not on the cards; the future is unknown; the best thing we can do at this crossroads, is to live in the present and enjoy the time we spend together.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, Senior lecturer on Early Childhood Studies at Bath Spa University, Mell McCree, says, “First of all, it’s about giving ourselves permission to just get the basics done – if your children are loved, clean and fed, you’ve got the basics there.”
Let off the hook of perfection, adults are more likely to be in the mood for goofing around which means any mess, noise and rowdiness will affect them less. This is a blessing, as being turbo charged, children do not respond well to being cooped up. They need to let off steam.
“It’s like they say on a plane – put on your own oxygen masks first,” says Mell. “If you’re feeling stressed and out of sorts, it’s very hard to feel playful, so ask yourself what you need to do to feel calm and balanced. A bath, listening to some music, making sure you do things to get that balance back.”
In fact, if we can get into the right mind set, we can turn this period of confinement into a memorable hiatus that allows us to really get to know our children by watching them at play and, when appropriate, joining in.
“It is lovely seeing some of our children doing workouts with their parents,” says Sharmila, referring to the students at King’s College Alicante. “They do dancing and aerobics as well as yoga and meditation.”
Of course, adults do not have unlimited time to play with their children, even during quarantine, and this is a blessing too. According to Mell, “We don’t need to be with them 100 percent of the time. There’s a process in play for children when they get immersed and actually we can be interrupting them when they don’t want or need that interruption, so it’s about being sensitive to when a child needs you.”
Head Teacher at King’s College Chamartín, Rachel Davies agrees. “Sometimes children need a lead in, to familiarise them with the resources,” she says. “But as soon as they start to get their own ideas and drop yours, encourage it and start backing away.”
Of course, playing with our children should not become an extra source of stress. Regarding older children, for example, adults don’t need to be a regular part of the equation.
As author and early childhood specialist, Lisa Griffen-Murphy, points out, children need to be given the space to come up with their own ideas. “I think that often we’re not comfortable sitting in the time that it might take children to get an idea for themselves to move on,” she says. “So I think we as adults, get kind of panicky and rushed and we’re like, ‘Come on, go and do something!’ But maybe if we just let them be bored for a little bit, that’s ok. We know they’re safe. They don’t need to be busy all the time. You have to be mindful of not feeding the busy monster that is constantly present in our life right now.”
Former actress and educator, Janet Lansbury, agrees. “So much of this is about parents being able to let go of the agenda,” she says. “By doing so, we can release the guilt we sometimes feel to keep our child entertained; to keep the plates spinning in the air.
This is especially true in the case of adolescents whose periods of inertia may prompt us to boot them into an activity of our choosing that could rob them of the chance to come up with something on their own – possibly in the realms of music or art, or perhaps an invention of a totally different nature, such as a game to play with their siblings.
“The one thing I will miss about lockdown is all the games we have been playing,” says Lia, a student in her last year at King’s College Madrid.
During confinement, teenagers have the “space” to rediscover the child that still lurks within and throw themselves into games that they are traditionally too busy or perhaps feel too “grown up” to enjoy.
Whatever the age group, all mess and noise will happen in the home or, if you’re lucky, the garden. But suppressing the need for this kind of play will only build up the pressure.
“There’s more physical need for expression during the crisis,” says Mell, adding that younger children need extra attention to feel safe. “Give them a little extra rough and tumble time,” she advises. “If you don’t provide it, they’ll get more cranky, which is a negative spiral.”
When it comes to messy, there is no better room in the house than the bathroom. Painting can actually be done in the bath, as can water experiments while anything sticky can easily be cleaned from surfaces. According to Janet Lansbury, there should be a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ area of the house – the ‘yes’ space being the one where dens can fashioned out of sheets and cushions, make-believe hospitals set up and shops organised.
“Make resources available that your child is interested in,” says Rachel. “Open-ended kitchen resources, as children often like to play at cafés; lego or construction which is hugely open-ended; figures or small world toys so they can create in-depth storylines if given time; arts and crafts materials, including junk modelling from the recycling store.”
As adults, we are used to fixing things, ticking items off a list, reaching a goal and fleeing any sign of boredom, frequently forgetting that children can get a lot of pleasure out of the simplest activity while repetition – which might seem like the soul of tedium to us – allows them to understand situations better and feel more in control.
“Often as parents we interrupt children and get them to do something we think is more important or that we think they would like more, rather than fostering them to stay longer and go deeper into whatever they are engaged in,” says Janet.
The entire world is moving in slow motion. We are struggling to get our heads around the new reality. But, as Sharmila says, “We know from many of our parents that despite this being a challenging time, it has been an opportunity for families to really spend quality time with each other.”