National Week of Play: Reclaiming children’s right to play

Children running

by Melanie Pilcher, Quality and Standards Manager at the Early Years Alliance

Reflections on the past 16 months 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1999) recognises the right of children to ‘rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts’ (Article 31).  

But play is not just a right that we can bestow on children, it is a basic need that is integral to their learning and development and vital to their wellbeing. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year, nobody could have predicted that nearly 16 months later we would still be living with day-to-day restrictions, social distancing, and the ever-present threat of yet another wave of infections.  

There is much to be proud of in the way that those who provide services to children and families, including childcare and education, continue to respond to the challenges we are still living with. 

Early years providers have been innovative and determined in their efforts to protect children from the impact of the pandemic, making compromises between optimal situations for learning, and safer environments. 

Thankfully, as restrictions continue to lift we are moving towards some semblance of normality.  

But as things get easier, we must not forget that early years children have been denied the freedom to choose how and when they play for nearly half their lives – and that this will inevitably continue to shape their future experiences. 

How has children’s play been affected? 

To begin to recognise how children’s play has been affected, it is helpful to reflect on some of the common features of play. 

Play belongs to children, they instinctively decide how and when to play.

The need to maintain hygiene has restricted the ebb and flow of daily life in a setting as some elements of continuous provision were suspended. 

Days have revolved around routines for arrivals and departures, cleaning equipment and hand hygiene. Activities where children gather in proximity, for example, sand and water trays, were removed in favour of equipment designated for individual children. Children were instructed what to play with and how. 

Smaller group sizes were introduced, preventing children from mixing with peers in other cohorts.  

When they play, children are finding out about themselves, testing their ideas and abilities, and building their confidence.

There have been fewer opportunities for children to innovate whether playing alone or with their peers. 

For example, repurposing resources to facilitate role play, taking dolls from the home corner and lining them up in the sand tray, or organising a space (indoors or outdoors) that they can claim as their own.

These opportunities are usually seized upon by educators as teachable moments, but without the free play they rely on, such chances are harder to come by. 

Working through their feelings and making sense of their world  

Children are guided and supported by educators to understand what is happening in their world, but it is play that helps them to work through their emotions and frame their experiences in a context that is appropriate to their age and stage of development. 

Many adults have struggled to make sense of what has happened during the pandemic; many families are dealing with loss or separation and have found it hard to cope with day-to-day life. 

As we begin to understand that mental health and wellbeing is just as critical for children as for adults, opportunities to work through those feelings will now be more important than ever. 

During play, children form relationships with their peers and test out the rules of social engagement.

From a very early age children play side by side with, and then cooperatively with, peers or siblings. As they grow, they begin to initiate play with children from outside their family or social group.

For example, children on holiday with their parents, or visiting a park or other venue, will quickly be drawn to other children and before long they will be engaged in playing.

Social distancing continues keep children apart from one another, meaning they do not have the opportunity to practice their social skills on new people or in different contexts. 

Play supports all areas of learning and development  

Play is not the only way that children learn and develop, but it is essential. 

Play is where children develop their fine and gross motor skills, climbing, running, jumping, even crawling. 

Enforced sedentary lifestyles under stay-at-home orders means muscles that need to be exercised are not being used fully. 

Some children are now struggling with poor balance and coordination having missed out on chances for active play. 

The case for ‘reclaiming play’ 

Taking time to recognise the vital importance of play and its benefits will now be crucial.

Despite the best efforts of dedicated early years professionals, play has been restricted and children have suffered the consequences of that. 

When we reclaim play – we are helping children to recover. 

We must take whatever steps we can to ensure that the child’s right (to ‘rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts’) is restored.  

One of the most important actions we can take now, is to put play back into children’s control – to restore their sense of ownership over playtime. 

Look out for daily blogs throughout our National Week of Play, as we explore different aspects of play and its benefits, with plenty of ideas on how to support play in the early years along the way.  

And if you visit the Early Years Alliance National Week of Play page and register via the online form – you will receive your free resource pack.