Easing Anxiety Through Play

As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all confronted with uncertainty and fears – including young people. Professor Helen Dodd speaks to CONNECTED about how parents can use play to reduce their children’s anxieties.

As a Professor in the University of Reading’s School of Psychology, Professor Dodd’s research focuses on child anxiety – a matter which is at the forefront of many people’s minds in the current circumstances. With schools closed, and many children at home under the care of working parents, not only are we navigating our way through a pandemic, but also through the difficulties arising from homeschooling and our children’s mental wellbeing. Professor Dodd offers her expert view on how we can overcome these challenges through encouraging play.

Under pressure

Google searches for ‘homeschool timetable’ in the past week were almost 200 times higher than the average of the previous year. But should parents be expected to recreate school at home? Professor Dodd explains this uncertainty and what we can do to tackle it:

“As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all confronted with uncertainty. Research tells us that uncertainty increases anxiety and worry in both children and adults.

“We cannot remove much of the uncertainty we currently face, but what we can do is look for opportunities to regain some certainty and control. For this reason, following a normal routine where possible and having some structure to the day is likely to be useful for children and for parents.

“Within this, though, everyone needs to be realistic about their expectations. The evidence shows that, at this uncertain time, supporting children’s play should be a vital part of the picture – for their own mental health and for the wellbeing of the entire family.”

Professor Dodd explains that in normal circumstances homeschooling is a conscious, long-term choice made by parents who choose to take responsibility for their child’s education however, in the unknown circumstances that COVID-19 brings, homeschooling takes on a new definition.

“The present situation is entirely different – children are at home because their schools have been closed due to a pandemic. This should not be classed as homeschooling. Parents who homeschool don’t typically attempt to work from home while educating their children, and they rarely spend the whole day at home. The sudden switch to attempting to homeschool puts added pressure on parents at a time when anxiety is already high. This is not helpful for them or their children.”

Embracing play

Instead, Professor Dodd believes that play is an important alternative to homeschooling, encouraging better physical and mental health and enabling effective learning:

“During free play, children decide what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to start and stop. It is especially important for primary school aged children to retain this element of free play. The benefits of free play are wide-ranging.

“When children have more opportunities for free play, they have better physical and mental health. It significantly decreases their stress levels and, importantly, it facilitates learning.”

“Free play can also help children make sense of things they find hard to understand. In the current context, this means that parents might observe children playing coronavirus games or games where there is a theme of illness or death. This is normal, and probably helpful for the child to understand what they are experiencing. There is no need to stop this kind of play, but parents could use it to stimulate later conversations if they are concerned about their child.”

Should parents join in?

The role of adults is to provide physical and psychological space, and resources that support the child’s play. Professor Dodd advises that parents should only join in or interfere with the play if the child asks them to:

“Free play allows children to follow their interests and can provide a sense of control and independence, which are particularly important at this time. It is absolutely fine to let children get on with things if they are safe and having fun. In fact, it is a win-win.”

Professor Dodd offers some ideas for free-play activities, for example, building dens inside, dressing up, play dough or messy play. Parents can help with creative play by keeping boxes, bottles and card that would usually go in the recycling and letting children work out what they want to do with it. Inspiration can come from nature – send children on garden bug hunts or cloud watching, and be willing to let them get bored. Boredom stimulates creativity.

It’s important to acknowledge that given the current guidance that everyone should stay at home wherever possible, children’s play will necessarily be restricted. The good news is that there are a lot of brilliant ideas online about how to support children’s play. These include “I’m bored” activities from Play Scotland and Play Wales, whilst Learning through Landscapes offers ideas for play linked to nature, for both younger and older children.

Follow your instincts

Professor Dodd urges people to remember that: “Parents know their children better than anyone. Some will be quite happy with Maths, followed by English, followed by handwriting, but many others won’t. Regardless, play supports the emotional wellbeing of every child. It allows them some control, and relieves the pressure on parents to become a substitute teacher, improving the mental health of the whole family.

“All children need time and space for free play every day, now possibly more than ever.”

For more information on how you can best support your child with their anxiety during COVID-19, take a look at the resources produced by Reading’s AnDY Research Clinic, including a webinar and advice sheet.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 30 March 2020.