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No summer camp, no problem. The value of play during a pandemic

Parents across the globe are scrambling to fill their kids’ time, trying to become home school teachers and meet their schools’ various requirements. But maybe we need to let children play more instead.

Shutterstock/Sergey Novikov

States are starting to re-open, but parents facing the end of the school year are at loose ends, not knowing whether camps, summer schools, pools, and playgrounds will be open after the school year ends. Though the prospect of a summer of agonized choruses of “I’m bored!” might be more daunting than a summer of more social distancing, we might actually find ourselves confronted by something we desperately need: An opportunity to play.

Play is difficult to define, at least according to the academics who study it. Broadly speaking, it’s an activity that is directed by the individual or at least of their own volition, that is intrinsically enjoyable, personally meaningful, engaging, and most importantly, fun. Kids, of course, know play when they see it. And they know that play has value, even if adults don’t always remember that.

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“From the moment that we are born, the way that adults bond with their babies is by playing,” explained Laura Huerta Migus, director of the Association of Children’s Museums. “We play tickling, we bounce them up and down, and we’re creating bonding through play . . . it’s our first social interaction.”

Play, she says, is a necessary component of building social bonds, first with parents and caregivers and then with other adults and peers. These relationships form the emotional scaffolding necessary for healthy development. But play does more than that. Research demonstrates that it fosters development of emotional regulation and executive function — things like problem solving, focusing on a task, paying attention, and making sense of our experience of the world. Very recent research — out just this month — also indicates that how much access small children have to play is an indicator of their own sense of wellbeing. Play is so essential, so integral to normal development and positive mental health, that it is enshrined in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. (However, Wales is the only country that protects that right by law.)

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And yet, American playtime is dwindling. Since at least the early 1980s, if not before, child development experts have warned that diminished playtime — and the freedom that entails — is having adverse effects on American children. In the early part of the 2000s, governmental policies prioritized literacy and numeracy skills over less easily tested skills, such as social-emotional ability, despite warnings from early childhood education experts and bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. Average recess time in America — unstructured time for children to engage in the kind of play they want — has shrunk to just 25 minutes, far less than most other countries in the world. According to a 2019 survey from global campaign Outdoor Classroom Day, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil give children the least amount of time to play; more than half of schools in the UK and Australia, which have similarly long school days, give children at least 60 minutes.

But the abrupt closure of many schools in March meant that all of a sudden, kids had a lot more undirected, unstructured time, time to not worry so much about achievement and to play. And though this silver lining is perhaps only visible if you squint hard enough, it’s a silver lining nonetheless, because play is even more valuable during periods of stress.

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“I think it’s deeply ingrained in us to find play comforting,” said Huerta Migus. But play, by its very nature, also prepares individuals to deal with uncertainty and “feel comfortable with risk-taking,” said Lynneth Solis, a play and education researcher with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This is especially true for play that provides space for agency, “allowing children to feel empowered to act, to make mistakes, to be messy, to be loud, and come to their own insights and conclusions.”

“It’s really a way of exploring your environment with that sense of safety,” she said. “It just reduces the stress levels of trying something new, because trying something new is part of the process of play.” Play can function like this even for children in extreme, stressful circumstances. “Play allows us to manage, process, and understand our negative emotions and it allows us to try out different activities and experiences to work out that negative emotion, and when done in interactions with others, it allows us to have the positive social interactions that buffer against the negative effects of stress,” she said.

Play can also help clarify precisely what those negative emotions are about: Kids can be terrible communicators, but play is their medium. “It can act as a really good barometer of how children are feeling about their world,” said Jennifer Fane, a PhD candidate at Flinders University in Australia and lead author of the study on children’s access to play as an indicator of their wellbeing. “I think we often don’t notice how much they notice and play is a really good way to see what they’re seeing and thinking. It’s a really good way to check in.” Some children may act out some of what they’re anxious about through their play, as a way of processing or trying to control that fear. However, cautioned Professor Paul Ramchandani, the LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development, and Learning at the University of Cambridge in England, “none of us should read too much into what we see in children’s play. . . interpreting children’s play is very fraught.”

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Right now, opportunities for some kinds of play are necessarily diminished. “You can’t be out on the street playing with your friends, that kind of peer play, unstructured play, fun and games outside, that has just disappeared for most children,” Ramchandani said. Online interactions — those Houseparty calls where they just talk about poop and giggle for an hour — help. They’re not enough, but that’s all right. Though we can’t fill that particular void and though the circumstances have changed, the principles of good and useful play remain the same, Ramchandani said: Encourage as much variety as possible. Allow your children to take the lead when they want it. Invite them to play. And if they’re having fun without you, leave them alone and let them get on with it.

No one wants to be prescriptive right now; every expert I spoke with pointed out that we are living through an unusual moment and even asking the question, “Should we play more and how?” is a kind of privilege. But they also said that play doesn’t have to be hard. We don’t have to be the best at play in order to safely ferry our children through this time. In fact, said Solis, you probably already have most of the tools in your house already. Never underestimate the power of a cardboard box, an allowable mess, or the unexpected yes (“Go wild in the kitchen and see what you can make!”). Parents can put a lot of pressure on themselves to design activities and plan their children’s days; they don’t need to (and they do need to take time to find joy themselves). “As long as there is a loving, safe environment, it doesn’t matter if you have the new technology or a game,” said Solis.

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And as terrifying as the prospect of a summer of no organized fun seems, remember: It’s all right to let children be bored.

“Kids figure out how to play all the time and actually, the figuring it out is building life skills. That’s problem-solving!” said Huerta Migus. Learning how to move through frustration into creativity is a skill that makes them better at entertaining themselves, better academically, and also better at life.

“We’re in the situation that we’re in,” said Huerta Migus. “It is going to be short term, it is going to be hard, but if we can surround our children with a lot of joy and support where we can, we will bounce back . . . We can’t make it not terrible, but we can make it survivable.”

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in England. Her kids are in “school” until the end of July.