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One of the most challenging things to come out of the pandemic is the impact it has had on children’s play; the spaces they play in, the degree of freedom they experience and their ability to choose what they do and how they do it. Stuck at home, often in the same space as tired parents, the likely developmental consequences for our keiki is obvious.

Good physical and mental health, fun, creativity and freedom are all vital outcomes of the play process, essential for development – and these depend on the provision of appropriate physical and social environments capable of meeting the biological needs of children. There’s no doubt about it: playing in authentic and happy surroundings supports children’s growth.

Here at InspiredPlay, we want to address the issues arising from the impact of COVID-19 and help the fellow childcare professionals who will now be responsible for the reintroduction of play as restrictions ease up and parents begin to take their children to different play and childcare facilities again.

As it has with almost everything, the arrival of COVID has changed how we view play and the conditions we need to adopt to provide for it moving forward. We must now consider factors such as social distancing, face masks, restrictions on types of play, zoning play spaces and other measures.

This is why we would like to offer some simple guidelines which should make provision possible, whilst at the same time supporting the important processes intended to keep our keiki safe. Our job as play professionals is to make sure that children can play, but not to tell them how.

Play And Wellbeing

The impact of staying at home has likely had an effect on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of some children. In addition to feelings of loneliness, missing friends and social interactions, some children may have been stuck in overcrowded accommodation with no outdoor space, particularly in the more disadvantaged areas.

This is why we must now support and respond to children’s needs for freedom and control. Play has great therapeutic value, enabling children to work through trauma, form friendships, explore identity, develop physical and cognitive skills, creativity and resilience, in their own way and at their own pace. Therefore, it is important to help children adapt to the changes caused by COVID and lockdown, dealing with transition and eventually returning to school.

The following methodologies and ideas can be used by anyone who works with children at play including: teachers, social workers, medical practitioners, parks officers, youth workers, early years practitioners and parents.

How Can We Take A Play-Centered Approach?

A play-centered approach is one where children and their play needs are put at the heart of your vision and at the center of the process. As we adapt to the changes taking place around us, ensuring that children have good opportunities to play is essential.

Being flexible and responsive to children’s play needs is a key skill. Can you visualize your play area set up, giving children more space, being able to access loose parts when everything will need to be 6 feet apart? How can you plan this playfully yet safely? How will you manage numbers of children on site, limit times, book groups of lower numbers and create physical distance and social bubbles?

How Can We Allow Children To Play Freely With Their Peers?

Try to think about how the keiki in your care can have as much freedom and control in their play as possible. Allow them to play in their own way including activities like climbing, balancing, hopping, skipping, jumping and running.

Aim to keep adult interventions to a minimum. Be aware of what is going on by listening and observing but be prepared to step in only if needed, for example, in response to a cue from a child.

Try to avoid shouting or stopping children from playing. If someone is doing something they shouldn’t, try diverting them or helping them to adapt the activity so that they can still enjoy themselves without putting themselves or others at risk. Encourage the keiki to come up with their own solutions to help look after themselves and others.

How Can We Listen To and Learn From Children?

Transitioning to this “new normal” will take time and children need to be actively included in the process of change. Listening to their opinions and feelings is crucial. If a little one tells you they’ve been lonely and or feel worried, you need to ensure that you support their emotional well-being in your response.

Whether you are asked direct questions that may be easy to answer or hear potentially traumatic experiences, you will need to really listen. If necessary, reassure, respond and in some cases – if you are concerned – report.

Reflective practice is an essential tool we can use as childcare professionals to enable continuous learning, improved awareness of children’s engagement with the play environment and with each other. It may be helpful to set aside time at the end of each day for the staff team to reflect on the children’s play, write up thoughts and interactions, and use them to increase understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

How Can We Involve Children and Encourage Their Participation?

Participation should be an active and ongoing process involving children in decision making from day to day activities to wider decisions about how things are run. This participation will increase ownership of the play spaces and children’s ability to feel in control as far as is reasonably practical.

Children are a lot more competent than many adults give them credit for. Taking a participatory approach creates a culture of inclusion and develops confidence and competence. Try to ensure children have a meaningful role in initiating activities and offering input into new and challenging tasks – their creative ideas are essential. New boundaries, including physical distancing, social bubbles, better hygiene and hand washing as well as appropriate behaviour, will work better when discussed, negotiated and agreed with the children. Children need to know their participation is real so try to make sure you act on and support their ideas.

How Can We Support Children’s Choice and Free Will?

Children have the right to play, the right to express their views and have them taken seriously and the right to freedom of association, i.e. meeting others and joining groups. It is our job to take children’s views seriously and enable them to make choices, within agreed safety boundaries.

Lockdown has seen housebound children unable to exercise their rights to association and play, missing seeing friends. Play times provide friendly places for children to play, meet old and new friends, test boundaries and take risks not just physically but emotionally too. It’s up to you and your staff to support children’s choices, while simultaneously maintaining the systems, that will support their safety.

How Can We Make Sure That Children Receive The Benefits of Play Whilst Minimizing the Risk of COVID-19?

In this new landscape, we need to think about creative ways that children can still have fun and enjoy playing, while making the most of outdoor spaces like parks, school playgrounds, ball courts and streets. The evidence indicates that transmission of COVID-19 is much less outdoors, so think about games, sports and activities that children can do individually, in pairs, or in small groups whilst socially distancing. For example, tennis, running, jumping, skipping, bowling, chalking, hopscotch and other games can be adapted for a small group while maintaining social distancing. Try to take a playful approach and respond to children’s needs and wishes. Ask the children to come up with their own games, and have a simple supply of equipment and things to play with that can be disinfected in between uses.

How Can We Support Children and Their Families?

Children and families are understandably fearful about the risks of contracting COVID-19. We can encourage and support families to allow their children to play by explaining the benefits for children’s health and wellbeing, learning and resilience. There’s no doubt, lockdown has intensified families’ fears of being outdoors, of dirt and disease and of contact with other people. However reasonable this may be, it must be balanced against the risks to young people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing from being indoors and away from their friends for prolonged periods of time. It’s all about taking a balanced approach.

Do Staff Need To Wear PPE?

PPE should only be used as a last resort. By far the most effective approach is to wash hands regularly, maintain good hygiene and implement social distancing by keeping at least 6ft apart. You do not need PPE if you are doing general supervision in a school, club or outdoor setting. PPE must be used correctly and can cause problems if it is isn’t. You may want to use it when close contact is needed, for example, when doing first aid.

Is It Safe To Reopen Playgrounds?

Each playground should make their own decisions about when their facilities are ready to be reopened. Familiarize yourself with government guidance and carry out a thorough risk assessment. Some playground equipment may need to be sectioned off and playground providers will need to consider how to manage numbers in line with guidance. Arrangements may need to be made to help children maintain social distancing and minimize the risk of infection.

No play regulations require total elimination of risk and accidents – that would be impossible! Just carry out a suitable assessment of the risks associated and act accordingly, making sure that there are sufficient staff with first aid qualifications and that appropriate procedures are in place. For playgrounds that remain closed this is an ideal time to work on planning, policies and procedures.

How Can We Carry Out Adequate Risk Assessment?

Create a supportive culture for employees to work together to find solutions to health and safety concerns that enable children to get the maximum benefit from playing. Rather than automatically stopping risky activities, consider whether there is a way to adapt the activity so that children can still enjoy the fun aspects.

Risk assessments should be reviewed in view of Coronavirus guidance and new procedures put in place. These assessments should be carried out for all areas where children play including (but not limited to) playgrounds and playground equipment taking the virus into account.

How Can We Implement Our Duty of Care?

All childcare professionals have a duty of care to the children they are working with. Consider what a reasonable parent would do when it comes to the decisions that you make around staff ratios and supervision requirements. Implementation of COVID-19 guidance is likely to require a review of staff ratios – as you will need more staff to supervise a smaller number of children than usual. Your risk assessment should highlight other key areas that need supervision including gates and entrances, which should be supervised or secured at all times and any bathrooms that also require supervision.

How Can We Ensure The Policies and Procedures Are Easy To Understand and Implement?

Ensure that processes are clear for staff and everyone else involved by using practical language, making sure policies are clearly written and easy to understand so that their expectations are clear. Senior staff should recognise that they are modelling the approach of the organization and always seek to respond fairly and thoughtfully to all new issues that are raised.

How Can We Improve?

Regular meetings and debriefs are the best way to ensure good communication and to support the self-reflection that is vital for high quality play-based provision post lockdown. Staff and volunteers are the main resource you have and they need the space and time to think about what works and what they would like to achieve under the new regulations. Good provision will continue to improve if experimentation and freedom are encouraged when it comes to creating responsive ways of working with children in the ‘new normal’.