How to: use play to help children in a crisis

Children need play and children will play, in all sorts of difficult situations. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child protects play as a right of children in international law. Play is vital for child development and it is a powerful way for children to cope in times of crisis. If there was ever a time for children to play, it’s now.

This post looks at:

  • How play develops skills that strengthen children;
  • How play supports recovery from crisis;
  • What we can do.

Strength from play

Play is meaningful. It helps us to make sense of the world around us. It involves looking at how the world works and making up rules to make sense of it. In this way, children learn to create order from chaos and uncertainty.

Play is joyful and engaging. It is fun and absorbs children’s attention for long periods of time. It creates a sense of normality during change. Play helps their brains and bodies to grow and strengthen. This helps children to develop motivation, confidence and a sense of who they are and their individual value.

Play tests what is possible and involves trying again and again. It helps children to keep going in the face of obstacles. Importantly, it also helps them to build a sense of their own ability to deal with challenges. It is empowering.

Usually, play is socially interactive. This may seem difficult now, but for most young children the attention of their caregiver is the most important interaction. Play helps children to talk about their ideas, ask for help and build deep, powerful relationships through shared experience.

Making time and space for play is already helping your children to navigate this crisis. It is also helping them to develop skills and strength they will need as we recover together.

I think we all need more of the skills and resilience that play helps to develop right now. Play is not just good for your children, it’s good for you, too.

Play as recovery

Children can experience stress from difficult events that are out of their control. Although children are very resilient, sometimes this stress is significant enough to have real developmental impact. We call these ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’. Whilst we all want to protect children from these, they can be out of our control, too. If they happen, play has powerful potential to alleviate some of the negative effects of this stress. It supports wellbeing, development and relationships.

Play is also a really useful way for adults to learn how children are feeling. Often young children’s language and understanding lags behind their emotional complexity. Play can help them express how they feel. Have you ever watched your children play and seen or heard a mirror of yourself in it? They are representing how they see the world, which can really help you to understand what stresses they feel and what they need.

Play is used by humanitarian organisations around the world to support children in times of crisis like the pandemic. Supporting play is critical for children through these difficult times.

What can we do?

We need to give children the time and space to play, now more than ever. It sounds simple, but the pandemic creates more stress and more barriers to play for many families. The most important things that we can do at home are:

  • Make time for play: understand children’s need for play and prioritise it.
  • Make space for play: children need somewhere that they can feel safe and secure to play.
  • Get involved in play: adults play a critical role in children’s play, especially when they cannot socialise with other children. Sometimes, stepping back and letting them play is the right thing to do, sometimes they need the talk, security and guidance of adults.

Further reading

I’ve made some pretty big claims in this post. Don’t just take my word for the importance of play right now. If you want to find out more, here are some good, freely accessible sources of information.

The International Play Association: Access to Play in Situations of Crisis

Unicef and Lego Foundation: Learning Through Play

Save the Children: Children’s Right to Play

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