Prioritise play 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.

They 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.

What are the UK government’s ‘five tests’ for ending lockdown restrictions?

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

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.

Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, said: “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 2 metres away from their friends.

“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 coronavirus.

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 health and 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.”

The panel based their recommendations on a “rapid review” of academic literature exploring the harmful impact of isolation on children and the alleviating benefits of play, including one study which found that children who experienced quarantine or social isolation in previous pandemics were five times more likely to need mental health interventions than those who did not.

Sam Cartwright-Hatton, professor of clinical child psychology at the University of Sussex, said: “All the research indicates that children’s emotional health is suffering in the lockdown and it seems likely that this suffering will, in many cases, continue into the long term. We are urging ministers and policymakers to ensure that children are afforded substantial, and if possible enhanced, access to high-quality play opportunities as soon as possible.”

Dr Jenny Gibson, senior lecturer in psychology and education at the University of Cambridge, added: “It’s easy to dismiss play as unimportant, but for children, playing with friends and classmates has a very significant impact on their social development.

“Critically, it is an important way of working through emotions and will therefore be one of the principal ways in which they cope with the isolating effects of the lockdown. For that reason it’s important that whatever steps are taken to ease social distancing restrictions, children are given time and space to play with friends.”

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The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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