Playing through the Coronavirus Pandemic

Thursday March 19, 2020

Play is key to our health and well-being. Play supports emotional and social bonds and has the power to help us work through troubling feelings. Play reinvigorates us when we are tired and lifts our spirits when we they are low. Now, perhaps more than ever it's important to be playful. Written from the current (20:30 GMT) 23/03/2020 UK perspective, it links to UK National Guidance. If you are reading this from another country please use your country's National Guidance.

Only the other day, the sun shone, for the first time in a good while. With that, almost simultaneously, daffodils began to blossom, as did children’s outdoor play. The first indicators of spring-time, after months of what has felt like hibernation where children’s opportunities for play were mostly home based with occasional play dates and sleep overs. Encouraged by blue skies and sunshine, children (where the conditions allowed) began playing out. Around where we live, it was as if some silent call had been given out and a small gathering of children, some of whom had only seen each other in school for many months, began playing on the patch of grass in front of the houses. Informal self-directed and co-organised play emerged without adult involvement or direction. This continued for much of the weekend.

Then on Monday 16th of March, a press conference, “avoid all unnecessary social contact” was the directive. With that an enhanced, and for the most part very reasonable sense of apprehension and uncertainty developed across the UK. Covid–19 is a serious threat to public health and its uncontrolled spread is a serious threat to life, primarily because the demand of an uncontrolled spread would far outstrip the National Health Service’s ability to cope.

Taking sensible precautions and following the guidance will limit exposure to the virus and slow its spread. We would suggest using official NHS guidance on precautions which you can find here:

And guidance on social distancing can be found here:  

Update (23/03/2020) During tonights public address Mr Johnson added new measures that come into force with immediate effect:

  • Closing all shops selling non-essential goods,​ including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
  • Closing hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, campsites, caravan parks, and boarding houses for commercial/leisure use (excluding permanent residents and key workers)
  • Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
  • Stopping all social events​, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals


  • People will only be allowed to leave their home for “very limited” purposes:
  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home

Most adults will immediately recognise how difficult coping within these new Public Health recommendations will be, furthermore they will recognise the negative impact this could have on their lives, their opportunities for positive social and emotional interactions and the influence on their well-being and physical and mental health.

Equally most adults will be able to process these issues and recognise that, caught between a rock and hard place, it’s best to avoid unnecessary risk and that a reduction in the things that often make life better is something we will have to cope with. Adults, for the most part have a good degree of control over their choices and behaviours and will find ways to adapt that support their ability to cope with these very changed circumstances. The same doesn’t necessarily apply to children.

While adults have been communicated with in depth (difficult to avoid the mass media, news feeds, television news, newspapers and now daily press conferences with scientists and government ministers), we have yet to see any main stream media, in the UK at least, communicate in a meaningful and accessible way directly with children.

So, while adults are being kept directly informed through these turbulent times and supported to voluntarily adapt their lives, for the most part changes will just be happening to children and their lives, often without the same opportunity to process these changes as adults. Furthermore, children have less control over their choices, actions and behavioural interactions. This has the potential to leave children feeling out of control, frustrated and seriously disadvantages them from being able to create times and spaces in which they can make adaptations to their lives that will help them cope.

Play helps children process things in ways adults might just do by sitting and thinking or by chatting them through with someone else. Playing through difficult issues helps children come to terms with stuff that’s out of their control, stuff that can be hard to understand.

Children are particularly well equipped to cope with change, to adapt to new circumstances, to come to terms with things out of their control and to maintain their mental and physical health and well-being. A key way that children achieve these things is through playing. For more information see our posts on the value of play: http://ludicology.local/store-room/thinking-about-play/, and here: http://ludicology.local/store-room/play-as-an-outcome/

Much of children’s play goes on with other children and often without adult organisation or direction. However, in the short and even medium term it looks like that could become increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

Given the context outlined above it is essential children are provided with opportunities to play in and around the home. This may mean a relaxing of the normal constraints of home life in order that children can have some time and space for the sorts of self-directed, child-controlled play they might otherwise have when they are free of typical adult constraints.

Children’s play requires the presence of some pretty simple conditions in order that it can develop and be of good quality. These conditions include time for play, space for play and adults having positive attitudes towards children’s play. If these things are in place children can contribute significantly to their own health and wellbeing, and as families we can enjoy much of this time together.

Families self-isolating or simply spending much more time in and around the house could consider dedicating a space in the house for children to play. We understand that might simply be impossible for some families but even a corner of a room in the most compact spaces can still help. In this space, children should be free to develop their own play, be given permissions to use the space in ways that they choose, to adapt and change the space and to use the things available in that space in various ways of their choosing. Relaxing the typical rules and norms that are usually applied within this space will help children to feel the sense of control associated with their own self-directed play.

Adults should expect this space to become a bit messier than it may normally be, and to allow stuff to be left out for children to return to. As parents we can encourage den making out of furniture and bed sheets, helping to create different spaces in which imaginary games may emerge; enabling children to create their own play free from our involvement. Equally, parents should allow themselves some time to play with their children, time free from other distractions; even if it’s just a board game or making a mixture in the kitchen.

We should also try to make time for playing just that, a time for playing, resisting the temptation to intervene unnecessarily or to answer and resolve all the problems posed by children in their play. To enable children to engage in trial and error, to create problems and to work them out for themselves, adults can take a position of not knowing, saying for instance: “I’m not sure, how would you do it? What do you think could happen,? I’m not the best at that, you show me” etc.

If planning an opportunity or doing a structured activity, allow it to change direction or to morph into something unexpected, pay attention and take cues from the child, follow their interests, be a playmate for a moment. Playmates tend not to ‘parent’.

Try not to turn all activities in to learning opportunities. As parents it can be difficult to resist this temptation but playing is usually free from direction and a fixation on correctness. Remember the process of playing is far more important than the product. It really doesn’t matter what the junk model looks like in the end!

If you’ve had enough and need a rest from playing, say so. Parents have needs too and it’s as fair that these should be met as it is your child’s/children’s. If you’re not enjoying playing anymore, it will show, and children are likely to feel that. Better to withdraw, catch some breath, find some time and space for you, that’s absolutely ok.

Getting along in confined conditions will be demanding for all concerned. If possible, designating a space in the house for this degree of freedom for children to play should provide a balance of children’s and adult’s interests. As important as it is for children to have some space to play, it may be equally important for adults to have some space free from the mess of playing. The sitting room may not be the best place for playing to take over.

If you have a garden or yard make good use of this outdoor space. If you’re only access to outdoor space is  public outdoor spaces, you can take active exercise which for children may be playing once per day, try to make use of this, maintain social distancing guidelines and if you can’t, stay home. Fresh air is good, and the outdoors will rejuvenate cluttered minds and exhausted bodies in a way inside opportunities struggle to. If you don’t have immediate access to some outdoor space, try if at all possible, to get to some . The government have said that outdoor exercise and fresh air are important and should be accessed once a day whist observing directives for social distancing.

When visiting outdoor spaces, ride, walk, allow children to run and jump, and to be silly. This emotional and physical exuberance is a necessity for children and for you. Let children find spaces where they can play and take advantage of the opportunities you find there, these can be engaged in whilst maintaining social distancing, and if they can’t, stay home.

Remind children the main way the virus is spread is by putting their fingers in their mouths and noses and around their eyes after coming in to contact with the virus. So, by avoiding putting their hands around their face and in their mouth and avoiding physical contact they are being as safe as they can be. With careful explanation many children will modify their behaviour. For children who cannot or do not modify their behaviour they will need your help to do so.

(Update, 23/03/2020) Please when going outside for once a day active exercise and or play with your child/children make sure to maintain social distancing, staying two meters/six feet away from other people . If you can not do this, stay home.

If you can get it, carry some hand sanitiser, use it on the children before playing and immediately after, and if the playing is prolonged as often as you feel is helpful. Remember to wash hands before going out to play and immediately after. There are risks to getting out and about but if they are managed, they can be kept as low as possible and the benefits of fresh air and exercise through active playing once a day are highly valuable.

Our good friends Tim Gill and Penny Wilson have also produced a great blog that we’re are certain you will find useful, its got a really nice blend of practical ideas a supportive information: Play in the Time of Coronavirus

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