Mental health experts have asked Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, to encourage teachers to prioritise play when the Government gives the green light for schools to re-open. Despite widespread predictions to the contrary and relentless cheer-leading from some sections of the media, no date has as yet been set; indications are that a return could be staggered with primary school pupils possibly being the first returners.
Although the specific needs of children and their experiences of lockdown have never been given a focus at all in the daily press conferences, a growing number of research studies and reports testify to the adverse, escalating effects that COVID-19 is having on children’s mental health. In particular, ‘lockdown’ has been found to contribute to the worsening of existing mental health conditions, exacerbated by the removal of access to established care routines and face-to-face support services. Some children have been unfortunate and helpless witnesses to domestic violence; confined in proximity to adults who suffer from mental health problems and exposed to potential risks themselves of online, physical or sexual abuse.
Children who have never had a mental health problem have developed them; in particular serious depression and acute anxiety.
The consequences of the above will need urgent attention long after the pandemic has receded and a panel of experts from five universities now argue that prioritising play when the school gates re-open will be essential:
‘’Focusing on ages three to eleven, they recommend measures to ensure that children have the opportunity to play together. “Poor emotional health in children leads to long-term mental health problems, poorer educational attainment and has a considerable economic burden,’’ the experts say. Their recommendations are based on a ‘rapid review’ of academic literature exploring the impact of isolation on children, including one study that found children socially isolated in previous pandemics were five times more likely to need mental health interventions than those who did not.’
The official Government response was non-committal, reiterating that guidance has been published to assist ‘schools and families about how best to support children.’
Lead Author for the APPG and Spokesperson for the Child Mental Health Charter Campaign Helen Clark said:
The recommendations of the expert panel are eminently sensible and have received at best an inadequate and cursory response from the Government. As an APPG, years prior to this pandemic, we emphasised the vital importance of play in children’s physical and emotional wellbeing – and yet successive governments chose to downgrade play at each and every opportunity; whether sitting back while school playing fields were sold, refusing to integrate play appropriately into the school day and curriculum and offering no support to strategies involving the reform of the planning system in order to make neighbourhoods properly ‘playful’ for children and families nationwide. If the pandemic is going to leave in its wake, opportunities to re-make our way of life for the better, then any chance to upgrade play is a chance that must not be missed.
That message needs spelling out loud and clear. I hope that others will now join us in making the case for play with renewed energy and resolve.’
The APPG on A Fit and Healthy Childhood has published a report on Play and three reports on children’s mental health. All our APPG reports have stressed the primacy of play in the development and application of strategies to promote fitness and health for all children.