Playing helps children stay physically and mental well. It is an everyday part of a healthy and happy childhood. Play is just as important during a crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic. It helps your child manage their emotions and maintain a sense that everything is and can be ok.
During a crisis, playing is your child’s way to:
stay emotionally healthy
stay physically active, getting some exercise
relax and forget about worries
make sense of any new experiences and changes in their world
cope with feelings that are difficult or frightening
Playing at home
A great way for you to support the health, happiness and development of your child during the current crisis is to find ways they can play at home. Making time to play and have fun together is good for your relationship with your child and for your own mental wellbeing.
Playing can also protect your child from some of the negative impacts this crisis could have.
playing is strongly linked to creativity – it involves imagination and problem solving
playing helps young children develop by doing and talking. It is also how they learn to think
playing may involve your child acting and repeating events – this is one way for them to understand what is happening
acting their feelings helps your child come to terms with them and feel more in control
playing allows your child to express anger and frustration safely without harming other people, or without getting harmed themselves
playing allows your child to develop their own strengths and ability to cope
Being at home for long periods of time and being physically separated from friends, families, routines and cherished places is a new situation for most of us. Playing is a natural and active process that can help us.
Play in a Crisis
Information on the importance of playing during a crisis.
Children play naturally. Usually the most important things you can do to support this are giving your child enough space and time to play every day and having an understanding attitude. If your child sees that you are happy they’re playing, they tend to enjoy it more.
During this coronavirus pandemic, your child is expected to be at home for long periods of time. They may be physically separated from friends, family, routines and places that are important to them. It is a new situation for them – and for most of us.
You might see your child playing in a different way. They may return to play they enjoyed when they were younger. They may play games that are linked to illness, loss or even death. Their play might show feelings such as frustration, boredom or confusion.
Responding to your child's play
Playing is one way children deal with stress and cope with the situation they’re in. When children play, they are working out what they think and how to respond.
Unless your child seems distressed or stuck in their play, you can usually be reassured that it’s part of how they are coping.
However, your child might rely on you more than usual to make sure they have things to play with and space and time for them to play every day. Sometimes they might need extra attention to feel safe and cared for.
Examples of how you can support your child’s play, without leading or taking over:
wait to be invited to play.
If your child is happily playing, it’s fine to leave them to it
help protect your child's play from interruptions.
If your child is absorbed in playing, avoid switching on the TV or games console, asking questions or asking them to stop for other activities
let your child explore and make mistakes.
Let your child use trial and error and their own ideas without feeling foolish or judged
let your children develop skills at their own pace.
It’s tempting to step in to help your child when they find something difficult but that’s how they learn
let children choose the themes of their games.
Even if the themes seem difficult or upsetting, it’s their play
These are general tips for supporting your child’s play. Trust your own judgement.
Your child might like you to play with them or simply be nearby, so they feel safe and cared for. They may also like some privacy while they play – for example, if they’re not used to spending so much time indoors with you.
Supporting your Child’s Play
Information on supporting your child's play during a crisis.
Your child is living through a very new experience which is confusing and frightening for adults, too.
Playing is a very important way for your child to understand – and come to terms with – what they are hearing, seeing and feeling. It can be hard to feel like choices have been taken away, or to have little way of knowing how long this situation is going to continue.
What play might look like when children have scary, confusing feelings
Playing is one of the ways children adapt to change. The way they play may change – it may be loud and destructive, or quiet and calm.
Here are some examples of playing that you might see:
being very noisy – for example, needing to shout, sing loudly, bash on drums, or hit things noisily
taking frustration out on toys or objects – for example, punching pillows or throwing a teddy around
destroying something they have made – for example, tearing up a picture or knocking down towers
withdrawing into a small space – for example, a cardboard box, a space under the bed, a den made from sheets and pillows
play-fighting and ‘rough and tumble’ play with you or their siblings
Older children and teenagers may play like this, too. It is important that we remember that older children still need time and space to play.
How you can manage this kind of play at home
It can help simply to know that this is your child learning to cope with a new situation. However, when you are cooped up at home it can also be difficult to handle.
speak to your neighbours if you are worried about how the sound of this kind of play affects them. Some people get a lot of joy when they hear children playing, but others may feel it disturbs their sleep or other activities. Some compromise and consideration might be needed on both sides
find things for your child to play with that you don’t mind getting torn or messed up – for example, old sheets, cardboard boxes and cushions
get some play dough or other modelling clay for pummelling, squeezing and poking. If you have some spare flour and oil, you could make your own play dough
if your child is old enough, talk with them about when it’s ok to make lots of noise and when they need to be quieter
give your child something to make a lot of noise with – for example, dustbin lids, drumsticks or pots and pans. Let them make as much noise as they want for a set period of time – as much as you and neighbours can cope with – explaining that when the time is up they should pack things away
let your child know that you understand they need to play. Tell them you want to help them play without causing unnecessary damage harm to themselves, your home and other people
Information on managing play at home that feels noisy or destructive.
Going outdoors is good for our mental and physical health. It can relieve family pressures caused by spending so much time indoors together, too.
You may be allowed to go out to exercise for a short time each day. Guidance varies from country to country and may change as the coronavirus pandemic goes on. Always follow the official guidance where you are.
if you go out, stay two metres (six feet) away from other people at all times
wash your hands as soon as you get home
do not meet up with people you don’t live with – even friends and other family members
avoid exercising in busy places where you can’t keep two metres away from other people
Make the most of being outdoors
Whether your time outside is on city streets, in a park or in the countryside, nature is all around you.
take some time to pause, look around and talk with your child about what you see and feel
hug a tree, stand up on a rock, find weeds in cracks in the pavement
learn the names of the plants, trees and birds you find in your area. How many can you spot when you are out?
do some weather watching and forecasting – can you guess what the weather will be like later in the day, tomorrow or next week? How about keeping a weather diary with drawings and notes?
take photos, do drawings, write poems, tell stories
forage. Learn about the things you can eat that grow wild in your local environment
choose one place to visit regularly – for example, a tree, a bush, a stream, a canal – and watch how it changes day by day. Are leaves and buds unfurling? Are insects coming to live there?
go out at different times of day if you are allowed to by local regulations – early morning, sunrise, noon, dusk, night-time. What do you and your child notice about the sun and the moon, shadows and light effects?
Simple games to play while you are out
games like ‘I spy with my little eye’
jumping on the spot, hopping, walking backwards, doing handstands, trying a cartwheel, jumping in puddles, chasing shadows
storytelling, playing imaginative and fantasy games
drawing with chalk on pavements or sidewalks
badminton and games with bats, balls and hoops
games your child plays at school or nursery – you can ask them to teach you
taking small playthings from home – for example, toy animals or cars you can play with outdoors
balancing games – for example, on kerbs or lines on the pavement
collecting things like pebbles, sticks, and leaves that you can take home and play with
Information on making the most of your time outside.
The coronavirus pandemic has created unusual and difficult experiences for children and families. One of these is not being able to go outside.
This can be especially difficult if you feel your home is crowded, or don’t have much privacy from neighbours.
Feeling stressed or upset is completely understandable. It’s important to look after yourself and to find ways to relax.
Here are some suggestions that might help:
remember your child doesn’t need you to be the perfect parent. They need to know you love and care for them
if your child is playing happily it’s fine to let them play while you rest and have some downtime
it's ok for your child to be bored sometimes. They don’t need you to entertain them all the time
when you play with your child, try to forget about other concerns. Concentrate on enjoying playing with them
it's ok to say you’ve played enough, that you need a rest, or have to do something else
Playing is a way of being connected to the world. Here are some suggestions of things you can play at home.
Games to play looking out of the window:
count the number of cars or cats or people you can see
make up stories about what you see. For example, what is the cat planning to do? What’s their name? What would the world look like if you were the cat?
can you see the streetlights going on in the evening and off in the morning? Can you hear the moment the birds start to sing in the morning and settle down for the night?
at night-time, look for stars and the moon, reflections and shadows, birds, bats and other wildlife moving around
Always be very careful of your child’s safety when they’re near windows.
Bring some nature into your home:
look around your home for things to play with made from natural materials – wooden spoons, wicker baskets, cotton, silk, pebbles or feathers
try growing a small indoor garden in pots near a window. You could grow herbs to smell and taste, or seedlings for flowers
try making an arty garden on a tray making trees, plants and birds from scrap materials like wrapping paper, tissue paper, sweet wrappers and cardboard
learn to identify birds and insects using a book or looking online
Try to stay active
It can be hard to keep physically active at home, but there are lots of benefits to using up energy – for example, improving your mood (and your child’s) and sleeping better.
put on some music and dance – try funny dancing, slow motion, follow my leader or freestyle
exercises – turn your room into a gym. Try some sit-ups, running on the spot or balancing on one leg. Ask your child to show you exercises they do at school
rough and tumble play – play wrestling creates a burst of energy and fun. You can make things safer by moving breakable objects, or you can put a duvet on the floor
Sometimes your child might need to play alone or prefer some privacy when they play. Equally, there will be times when you need some space too.
find some items to make a den or a tent. It can be as simple as putting a bed sheet over a table with the fabric hanging down the sides so your child can play in underneath
a large cardboard box is a perfect plaything for children
make a cosy corner or a squashy circle with a pile of pillows and cushions
change the mood in a room by switching the main light off and playing in the dark, or just with the light from the street. Try making shadows with torches or a small lamp
talk to your child and explain that you sometimes need a little bit of quiet and time on your own just like they do. Even if you can’t be in different rooms, you can help your child learn that there are times when they should try to play quietly
Other pages in the IPA series offer guidance and ideas for playing at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
play dealing with difficult themes (death, loss, loneliness and so on)
coping with noisy and messy plan
ideas for play around your home
Playing when you can’t go outside
Information on playing when you cannot go outside your home.
Children are never too young to start practicing mindfulness. There is a body of research that indicates mindfulness can help children improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down when they are upset and to make better decisions. In short, it helps with emotional regulation and cognitive focus.
Take time as a family to follow a guided meditation or even just listen to calming music and practice taking deep breaths. Remember to keep the process simple. Mindfulness is a big word for young kids to understand. Put simply, mindfulness is awareness. It is noticing our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and anything that is around us and happening right now. This is an extremely effective way to bond as a family and to switch off from the stresses and strains of modern life.