What can quarantine teach us about play?

I used to love reading, but after studying for too many years, and then having small children and being tired all of the time, I just lost my love of reading. I read when I have to, mostly for work. But thanks to lock down and multiple trips to medical facilities’ parking lots, I’ve had a book with me to pass the time. And I’m loving it!

The joys of autumn in the garden

I’m currently reading Perspectives on Play: Learning for Life. It is a wonderful book covering a wide range of topics, is well-researched and edited by thought leaders in the field. It confirms so much of what I believe about our communities, how I feel about education and about how children spend their time.

There is so much positive to be taken from play in the 0-3 year old category. Children are learning at such a rapid rate, that every opportunity for play holds a vital place in brain development. The opposite also holds true. Children deprived of adequate play opportunities suffer developmentally.

The deprivation suffered by children in orphanages has been well documented. But as suggested in our book Playvolution: The Ultimate Guide to Developing Valuable Experiences Through Play, what if middle class children could also suffer from play deprivation as a result of a top-down education structure, and over-scheduled days?

In Perspectives on Play, it is stated that “Anything that suggests a top–down model of early learning should be avoided, particularly the application of an outcome based curriculum” (p 121). Hold on. Hasn’t our country been fighting for outcomes based education for the longest time, to assist and prepare our children for the world? All of our nursery schools seem to want to impress parents with the wonderful outcomes (on formally structured reports) of their playful learning approaches. But when is it okay to structure our preschoolers’ play, and when should we just observe from the shadows?

This worldwide lock down has given parents a unique opportunity to observe their children in play, to notice whether they are able to play independently or not, and to decide how to structure daily routine. Many children, especially of preschool age, are thriving in a less structured, more flexible and more accommodating environment.

Studies have shown that “anxiety-provoking experiences in early life – which importantly link to over-busy, over-controlled lifestyles in working families and outcome-dominated care and education settings – increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can interact destructively with the biochemistry of the brain, particularly in the first three years of life” – Sims, Gguilfoyle & Parry (2006). “This has the potential to create ongoing problems for emotional regulation, by misaligning the biochemical mechanisms relating to emotional control in infancy”. They further explain that children experiencing ongoing stress have higher resting levels of cortisol, and take longer to return to baseline after individual stressful experiences. Besides the obvious emotional downside, higher cortisol levels are linked to memory and learning problems, and these children typically perform poorly at school.

But it’s not all about how busy the children are, but also how stressed the caregivers are. Vermeer and Van Ijzendoorn (2006) found that caregivers who show signs of stress while at work in daycare seemed to produce more stressed children. So while we might argue that we are forced to have our children in nursery schools so that we can work, the choice of a homely and happy care centre seems more important now than ever.

So how do these thoughts relate to our current lock down status?

Many children receiving occupational therapy services seem to be doing really well at home. They appear to be better regulated and happier, getting along with their family members, and not keen to return to school. On one hand this raises the alarm about our schooling systems, and how they contribute to stress in our children. On the other hand it is a wonderful feather in the caps of the parents who are working hard to keep their children happy and content at home.

It will be interesting to see what research develops as a result of the unchartered waters we are navigating. Do children thrive as a result of a slower pace? Are sibling relationships stronger? When will we see the effects of a longer period of isolation from their peers?

I’m sure there will be negative effects too. I think daily about the children removed from their school meals and caring teachers. I am also concerned about those with unlimited internet access, and infinite screen time.

We are living in uncertain times. That’s for sure. But we would do well to use our free time to read more about what we do know, and then think about what we don’t know. Because when we know better, we can do better.