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Just like everyone else, children have missed out on so much during the pandemic, including school, play dates, and seeing their wider family and friends. But while adults can understand and rationalise why there’s been so much change, for children, especially very young ones, it’s all been bewilderingly strange.
However, simply playing can help children deal with that strangeness, and research by the Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity (gosh.org) (GOSH) has found 74% of parents think play has helped their child cope with changes linked to the pandemic. But two-thirds (66%) said they were concerned the pandemic will have a long-term impact on how children play and their wellbeing, and 43% admitted they found it hard to balance playing with their child around work and other responsibilities.
But even if it is hard to balance play time with the rest of a parent’s busy life, playing with children is definitely a worthwhile time investment – not only can it strengthen the bond between parent and child, explains the GOSH play team, but it nurtures creativity, helps kids to learn and build emotional resilience, and – best of all – it can be fun for parents as well as kids.
“The world has changed so much for children since the start of the pandemic, and it’s now more important than ever that we help them adapt and cope with change,” says GOSH consultant clinical psychologist Mandy Bryon. “Children have one simple, powerful tool at their fingertips to help with this: play.”
In a bid to encourage more playfulness and help parents with ideas about ways to play, GOSH has created the Power of Play Hub (gosh.org/the-power-of-play), a digital space for families to access tips and resources to aid play, featuring children’s favourite characters like Horrid Henry, Hey Duggee and JoJo & Gran Gran.
Bryon says: “GOSH has the largest hospital play team in Europe, so we know first-hand how vital play is in building emotional resilience – whether it’s to deal with loneliness, making friends, handling loss, overcoming fear of the unknown or coping with illness.
“Play offers a safe space for children to make mistakes and learn through trial and error. We want every child to benefit from play and, via the hub, parents will find expert tips and resources to help their child navigate life, whatever it may throw at them – and have a bit of fun at the same time!”
However big your home, creating an environment where children are free to explore their imaginations is vital for creativity and processing emotions, explains Sian Spencer-Little, deputy head of play services at GOSH.
“Create a space in your home that encourages play – somewhere where it’s ok to make a mess and be transported away to an imaginary world,” she suggests.
“You don’t need to invest in expensive toys – simply go back to basics and let your child lead the play. With a bit of imagination, the possibilities are endless.”
If you’re short on ideas for ways to play with your child at home, here are some suggestions from Spencer-Little…
1. Detective time
“Adopting a playful approach to an uncertain situation can inspire children to play because it creates a relaxing environment around them and teaches them vital skills for managing unfamiliar situations in the future,” explains Spencer-Little.
This can be done by creating a story around needing a detective to solve a mystery or arranging a treasure hunt, for example. Spencer-Little also suggests using coloured card to cut out shapes and hide them around the house, with prizes for the winners. “Everyone wins, of course,” she adds.
2. Loose parts
Ordinary boxes can turn into something magical for children when paired with milk or juice cartons that have been cleaned and other bits and bobs, Spencer-Little points out. “If you have space to store items like these, they’ll come in very handy for assembling a garage, hospital or reading den, and these sorts of playful activities are great for helping children’s developing imaginations.”
3. Tactile textiles
Different materials have great potential through their tactile and sensory properties, points out Spencer-Little, who suggests materials can be used to create costumes or dens. She says parents should make sure children know where materials are kept and that they have permission to use them to get creative, and adds: “Children are able to change the dimensions of a space when playing at home with different types of materials.”
4. Play outside close to home
Getting outdoors to play can remind both parents and children that they’re connected to a bigger community and neighbourhood, says Spencer-Little.
“Even if there’s not a garden at home, take some chalk outside to doodle the pavement or play hopscotch in the park, as a fun and temporary way to influence the environment.
“If you have some outside space close by, taking a ball, skipping rope or hoops will help your children to have fun while moving their bodies. Otherwise, why not go on a walk together and spot certain coloured cars, avoid the cracks, find things that begin with the letter ‘S’ – you get the idea!”
5. Get messy
Although messy play, whether it’s with paints inside or mud outside, can be great fun, it’s not so great for parents who have to clean up the mess, and the messy child, afterwards. “It isn’t always comfortable for everyone,” says Spencer-Little,
“Try and listen to how your children respond – they’ll know if it’s something they want or need to explore. If you’d rather keep messy play on the tidier side, why not find a large tray that will keep the mess contained and avoid spillages? Getting messy can be really fun!”