The serious business of play

By Rebecca A. Clay, APA

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to encourage unstructured play and promote children’s healthy development, psychologists say.

Guides for parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic are full of advice about how to help children navigate the transition to virtual classes, how to keep children busy and avoid boredom, and why schedules and routines are important during this stressful time. What might be overlooked? Unstructured play.

That’s a mistake, say psychologists. A wealth of research shows that unstructured play — play that isn’t organized or directed by adults or older peers and that generally doesn’t have a defined purpose or outcome — is a fundamental necessity for children to thrive physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.

Active play like backyard swinging and games of tag helps build healthy bodies, increase energy and reduce tension and anxiety. Risky, challenging play like manhunts or jumping from manageable heights helps children learn to make decisions, calibrate risks and manage emotions. Interactive play with siblings, parents or other household members teaches empathy, reciprocity, sharing, problem-solving, perspective-taking, cooperation and more as well as fostering feelings of connection and acceptance. And creative play helps children make sense of life around them as they create art or music, build forts, tell stories and try on different identities.

And play — for all members of the family — is especially important during the pandemic. “We’re all under stress at this time, and play is an important catalyst to relieve stress,” says educational psychologist Lauren McNamara, PhD, founder and director of Recess Project Canada, a research project housed at Toronto’s Ryerson University that promotes active and inclusive recess environments for children in Canada and beyond. “Engaging in unstructured play with the kids can be an important time for families to stay connected and feel emotionally secure together.”

To help soothe anxiety and foster healthy child development in all domains, psychologists encourage parents to:

Enjoy unstructured play with their children

Parents may be more busy than usual as they navigate the transition to telework, worry about job loss and strive to keep their families safe. But it’s more important than ever for parents to make time to play with their kids, says Timothy Davis, PhD, a private practitioner in Newton, Massachusetts, and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. “Parent/child play is important in maintaining a strong relationship and strong attachment between parent and child, which fosters resilience,” says Davis.

Let the kids take the lead

Parents shouldn’t try to take over or control the activity a child is engaged in, says Natasha Cabrera, PhD, a professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland in College Park. If a child is using a play stove as a drum, that’s OK. “Don’t say, ‘This is a stove, you have to cook,’” says Cabrera. “Being intrusive means taking away the child’s autonomy to create something new.” Instead, she says, encourage the child to try out new ideas in a safe space and say instead, “I didn’t realize that was a drum. That’s really interesting!” Younger children may need a little help developing their imaginative skills, says Sandra Russ, PhD, a professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University. “Parents can help scaffold the play a bit,” she says. They might model how a building block could be a piece of fruit or a telephone, for example, or ask their child to make up a different ending for the story.

Encourage “pretend play”

Unlike board or card games, which have set rules to follow, pretend play allows children to come up with their own rules, games and stories. Pretend play that helps children develop their imaginations, hone their creativity and learn how to amuse themselves is key, says Russ. While pretend play may involve dolls, action figures, art supplies or blocks, it can also be as simple as couch cushions and blankets that become a fort, pots and pans that become musical instruments and natural materials like branches and pinecones that become parts of imaginary worlds. “That helps the child develop the ability to see lots of different uses for things,” says Russ. “You don’t need expensive toys.”

Facilitate safe interaction with peers

Parents may be tempted to use screen time to distract their children while they’re trying to get their own work done. That’s OK in small doses, but parents should try to make screen time interactive, suggests Davis. “There are lots of different ways you can play together over Zoom or FaceTime,” he says. Parents can set up virtual play dates where a child and a friend build with Legos and show off their creations to each other. Find online versions of board games children can play with friends marooned in their own houses. Encourage children to tell stories to their grandparents over video calls or share their artwork with friends.

Send kids outside

Send kids outside if there’s a safe place to do so. Outdoor time should be a priority, says McNamara. “Park structures are off-limits during the pandemic, but family tag, running games, Frisbee, catch, skipping, biking, skateboarding and skating are all possible,” she says. “Chalk, washable paints, ropes and cones can be used to create obstacle courses and sidewalk art.” If parks are closed or too far away, she adds, parents can take advantage of outdoor spaces such as backyards, driveways or city sidewalks. Some cities are even closing off streets to allow room for outdoor play.

Incorporate playfulness into everyday activities

By incorporating playfulness into everyday tasks like cooking dinner or planting a garden, parents will not only be getting help, they will be teaching children important skills like math and collaboration and giving them a sense of contributing to the household, says Robyn Holmes, PhD, a psychology professor at Monmouth University. Parents can invite their children to get creative and add food coloring to food or make pancakes into squares, triangles or dinosaurs, she says. Or let children use the family garden as their own pretend “farm.”

Most important, says Cabrera, is for parents to understand that play is important. “Play isn’t something you do because you have nothing else to do,” says Cabrera. And play is more important now than ever before, even in households where parents are worried about losing their jobs or being able to buy groceries. “Now is a good time for children to feel joyful and positive,” she says. Plus, she adds, “happy kids are easier to manage.”



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