Education Experts Ask UK Government to Give Kids a 'Summer of Play'

Forget the extra lessons. Children just need to recover from COVID-19 stresses.

little girl skipping rope
Two sisters enjoy jumping rope on a lawn.

Getty Images

"Let the children play!" This is the message that a group of child psychologists and education specialists is telling the British government as it tries to figure out how to deal with the academic losses experienced by children during the pandemic. The government has suggested extending the school day and stretching the school year into summer vacation, but many experts think that's a terrible idea. 

Children's mental health is suffering in the UK as a result of prolonged strict lockdown measures. Data shows that around two-thirds of primary school children feel lonely, which is a 50% increase above normal. Loneliness is known to have short- and long-term impacts on mental health, and it's the duration of loneliness, rather than its intensity, that is most strongly linked to poor outcomes. The government would be wasting its time tackling academic deficiencies before addressing this other serious problem. 

The group of psychologists and specialists, which calls itself PlayFirstUK, sent a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month, asking him to support a "summer of play" for all UK children, rather than implementing aggressive "catch-up" plans. The letter says,

"This spring and summer should not be filled with extra lessons. Children, teachers and parents need time and space to recover from the stress that the past year has placed on them. As part of a wider recovery process, children should be encouraged and supported to spend time outdoors, playing with other children and being physically active." (via The Guardian)

The letter explains that play itself is educational; children learn by interacting with peers, so prioritizing play – particularly outdoors – does not prevent them from learning. The group writes that play is so essential to children's wellbeing that it is enshrined as a fundamental right by the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of a Child, Article 31

"Outdoor play, in particular, is linked to increased physical health, as well as social and emotional health​. Play is beneficial during times of anxiety, stress and adversity​: it provides a sense of control and independence; it helps children make sense of things they find hard to understand; it supports their coping and resilience. In highly stressful situations (e.g. warzones, in hospital, in orphanages) research shows that playing with other children is therapeutic." 

A document on PlayFirstUK's Twitter profile offers suggestions for how play could be implemented safely. The government could start by allowing children to play with peers as soon as lockdown rules are loosened, outdoors and in small numbers. Back at school, children could be sent outdoors continuously in pairs or small social bubbles to ensure everyone gets adequate time without overcrowding. 

"As soon as it is possible to do so without significantly increasing physical risks, children should be allowed to play with their peers without socially distancing," the document states. "Without the need to socially distance, children will be able to play freely. ‘Free play’ is particularly beneficial for emotional wellbeing."

This advice is valuable for all parents to consider when making spring and summer plans. Lockdown rules are loosening here in my province of Ontario, Canada, and already I see parents posting online about the camps and programs in which they plan to enroll their children to make up for lost progress. Parents would do well to reconsider, acknowledging that their children are emerging from a traumatic event and might just need time to get offline, outdoors, and spend unscheduled time with friends they haven't seen face-to-face in months.

It stands to reason that good mental health and resilience will facilitate learning and improved academic retention down the road, so making it a priority now is not wasted time; it's an investment in something crucial that ensures children will bounce back from this crisis stronger and smarter than ever. Hopefully, the UK government listens to this wise advice from PlayFirstUK.

In fact, we could all benefit – adults included – from a summer of play, especially outdoors. COVID-19 has created enormous setbacks for many people, none of which are going away anytime soon, and building mental resilience can only make it easier. This might be a perfect time to embrace the 1000 Hours Outside challenge that I wrote about recently, to dedicate some time during the evenings or on weekends to being outside with (or without) children, or to embark on microadventures to refuel one's creative energies.