Children must have time to play, psychologists stress amid plans for 'catch-up' lessons
AUTHOR: Charlie Duffield
For some children, it has been months since they had a chance to play with others their age
Children need to be given the chance to play with their friends, be physically active and spend time outdoors to bolster their mental health, a group of leading experts have said.
In a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, PlayFirstUK is asking that decisions over children’s education and the easing of lockdown prioritise social and emotional wellbeing, instead ofextra lessons once lockdown has eased.
The group includes fifteen child psychologists and education specialists, led by Professor Helen Dodd from the University of Reading.
One recommendation is for children to be exempt from the rule of two, as soon as it is safe enough to do so, and for schools to be given more resources to prioritise children’s mental health when they reopen.
Time to reconnect
The group of academics from the Universities of Reading, Sussex, Cambridge, Bath and Gloucester warn that plans for intensive ‘catch up’ activity could see a further decline in children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Psychologists reported behavioural changes in some children after the first lockdown last year; following months of isolation from friends, some struggled to share and play together, with teachers reporting more fights and fallings-out, alongside a concerning drop in physical fitness, according to Ofsted.
PlayFirstUK claim additional lessons would have a negative impact on children’s long term learning, as well as increased pressure on mental health services, whilst giving children the chance to socialise and play will be more beneficial for resilience and educational outcomes.
Helen Dodd, professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading and a member of Play First group said: “We are really concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children; research shows clear increases in mental health problems and loneliness.
“As part of the recovery process, children need time to reconnect and play with their friends, they need to be reminded how good it feels to be outdoors after so long inside and they need to get physically active again. There is understandable concern about children’s education but the impact of mental health problems in childhood can be lifelong.
“This letter is really a plea from us that children’s mental health and their right to play and have fun with their friends are not forgotten in a rush to catch them up to educational targets that adults have set for them.
“If we do not get this right we run the risk of pushing struggling children back into a pressured educational environment, which could cause further damage to their mental health and development. Our children have missed out on enough over the past year, they deserve a summer filled with play.”
‘Play is the best thing’
Dr Kathryn Lester of the University of Sussex added: “It is now more important than ever that the government stands by its commitment to children’s mental health. While there is an understandable focus on children catching up academically, we know that children cannot learn effectively when they are struggling emotionally.
“As lockdown eases, what children need is the time and space to reconnect and play with their friends because this is important for their emotional wellbeing and their academic achievement.
“For schools and parents, the pressure to ensure that children ‘catch up’ academically should be eased and instead schools must be given the resources and guidance to focus on putting children’s social and emotional wellbeing first.”
Anita Grant, chair of Play England said: “This has been a time of massive anxiety, fear and stress for us all and children have been amongst the hardest hit. Children who feel anxious do not feel safe. As we move forward we need to think long and hard about how to support children to play freely, reconnect with their world and feel happy in their communities.
“Everything that we do in the recovery needs to support children to build resilience, work through trauma, make friends and enjoy themselves. Play is the way that children do all those things so giving them the space, time and permission to play is the best thing that we can do.”
This week ministers confirmed they were considering extending the school day and lengthening the summer term to help children catch up with their studies
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know the pandemic and restrictions have had an impact on many children and young people’s mental health, and that’s why we are working to fully reopen schools as soon as possible.
“To support children returning to schools, we have an £8m wellbeing programme in place which facilitates local expert support for education staff to respond to emotional and mental health pressures some children and young people may be facing.”