Play must be prioritised when schools reopen, say mental health experts

Child mental health experts have urged the government to prioritise children’s play and socialising with friends over formal lessons and academic progress when schools in England reopen and lockdown restrictions are eased

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian 

Child mental health experts say they are ‘extremely concerned’ about the impact of the lockdown and more than six weeks without face-to-face play with peers on child mental health. They are calling on ministers to ensure that play is at the top of newly permitted activities. They are also calling for children to be allowed to play with their peers without social distancing as soon as it is safe to do so, based on a ‘risk-benefit approach’, recognising the benefits while ensuring children are not exposed to unnecessary risk.

“Returning to school after a long period at home will be challenging for lots of children. It will be especially challenging if they are expected to remain two metres away from their friends,” says Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading.

“We ask that, once it is safe to do so, the loosening of lockdown is done in a way that allows children to play with their peers, without social distancing, as soon as possible. This may mean that close play is only permitted in pairs or small groups or within social bubbles that allow repeated mixing with a small number of contacts.”

The experts, who specialise in child mental health and development, warn that children will be suffering from loneliness and isolation after being required to stay at home as part of the national effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.

While ministers will be keen for schools to kickstart academic studies, and begin the process of catching up on work missed, the panel of experts who represent five universities, including Cambridge and Sussex, say play will be essential to help relieve stress and anxiety among children.

In a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, they write: “At this time, many children’s emotional health will be suffering due to loneliness and isolation. As experts in children’s mental health and development we urge the government to prioritise children’s social and emotional wellbeing in all decisions related to the easing of lockdown restrictions and the reopening of schools.”

Focusing on children aged 3-11, they recommend a series of measures to support children as the country emerges from lockdown, asking the government to ensure that children have the time and opportunity to play with their peers, both in school and outside. They say schools should be given the necessary resources and guidance on how to support children’s emotional wellbeing as schools reopen and that “play should be a priority during this time, rather than academic progress”.

While many parents and teachers will be anxious about educational progress and health risks, the experts say the government’s public health message must highlight the social and emotional benefits of play and socialising with peers.

“We hope that when policy decisions are made in the coming weeks and months that children’s emotional health is given the consideration it deserves,” the letter says. “Poor emotional health in children leads to long-term mental health problems, poorer educational attainment and has a considerable economic burden.”

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