Last reviewed 9 September 2020

Rebecca Fisk looks at the importance of play for young children and how play has changed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Early years practitioners are central to children’s play and lifelong learning. Every child has the right to play (UN Convention) as play is natural for children, and in fact, for all young mammals. It is essential to brain development, socialisation and well-being. Children play to explore and understand their world, to take risks and learn about their own capabilities and to express their thinking and creativity.

During the Covid-19 lockdown children will have had play experiences that significantly differed to those that they experienced before in childcare. Children will have had less peers to play with, they may well have had less space to play in, and likely to have had less play resources. Many parents will have sought guidance about home learning and had stimulating learning and play environments whilst there will be many who will have found accessing resources, space and ideas for activities difficult. Early years practitioners are in a key position to find out about a child’s lockdown play experiences and offer both familiar experiences for reassurance and new experiences for opportunity. Many providers have been able to offer childcare throughout lockdown but some will be re-opening now after the summer break. Whatever the situation, now more than ever the importance of play is highlighted. Play is fundamental to children’s outcomes in the long term.

Play as critical to development

Play is how children learn and the power that play has to promote a happier, and healthier, life is phenomenal. Numerous studies show that the experiences children have in the first few years of life have long-lasting and far-reaching impact into adulthood, influencing not only an adult’s well-being, obesity levels and mental health but also the likelihood of economic stability, relationships stability, and life satisfaction.

The first five years of children’s lives are critical to their development. During this period, children learn at a faster rate than at any other time in their lives, developing cognitive and social and emotional skills that are fundamental to their future achievements throughout childhood and as adults. These skills are also the foundation for general well-being – laying the groundwork for how individuals cope with successes and setbacks, both professionally and in their personal lives. (OECD 2018)

Practitioners can support children’s play through developing the home learning environment with parents and sharing simple ideas and resources to build their confidence to engage with their child’s play. (Examples provided). Just by being a child, learning will take place through development and natural maturation, but will be significantly enhanced when a child’s play interests are encouraged.

Outdoor play

Children will need to play with and develop friendships as social interactions take place during play. Many children will have missed over six months of being able to play with their friends during and since the initial lockdown due to Covid-19. It will be vital for early years providers and schools to ensure that children are first and foremost given time to play and socialise again, within the risk assessed guidance, including plenty of opportunities to play outside. This will mean organising suitable outdoor clothing for children, finding outdoor play spaces, and bracing the autumn and winter weather! The Covid-19 virus has been shown to spread less in outdoor spaces where people can have greater distance from each other. Practitioners can talk with parents about their outdoor learning environment and the benefits. Many benefits are outlined in the free booklet produced by Community Playthings (Pete Moorhouse) which can be shared with parents, where they state that ‘There is overwhelming evidence that the outdoors is where children learn and grow best … benefits for health, physical development, creativity, connecting with nature, well-being and communication are plentiful’. They share lots of practical tips about how to create great learning environments outdoors that meet different needs and developmental opportunities for children. Environments where children can create, think and discover through their senses and play. Challenge and risk is an important element of play and links to how a child approaches a problem and tries to find a solution. This supports them to learn about their own capabilities, enhances their self-esteem and encourages them to keep learning. Careful planning of the outdoor learning environment will be needed, and practitioners can use the knowledge they have of the children’s time in lockdown to inform them of the children’s current needs and interests as well as considering how these might change over time. Plan flexibly, involve the children and parents, ensure all staff have some input and are invested in what outdoor play and learning can bring to a child’s progress and outcomes.

Play behaviours

Children will demonstrate different play behaviours. Some interactions with other children will be social, cooperative and positive, whilst others may be more destructive and negative. It is important that practitioners support children to resolve conflicts and minimise disruption as children who have negative play behaviours can find it much harder to make friends. Children need time to develop the vocabulary needed for playing with others and this can be supported through modelling effective play, using scenarios such as puppet play to work through play disputes, and regularly sharing stories where solutions are found to a problem. It is likely that many children have had limited contact with other children during lockdown and over the summer period, partly due to the social distancing measures in place but also perhaps an element of anxiety within some families. Once children are re-established in their childcare and education settings, practitioners will be able to see how much social experiences during Covid-19 have influenced the child’s development. They can instigate intervention programmes as needed to support any gaps in the children’s development.

The Early Intervention Foundation have produced useful tips for supporting children’s social and emotional wellbeing as they return to school following months away, and many are useful for early years practitioners too. They highlight the range of emotions that children may have experienced and how children may not know what or why they are feeling a particular way. Practitioners can support children to identify and talk about emotions, to regulate their emotions and to re-engage with building relationships and friendships. The power of play and your playful positive interactions will be central to these nurturing environments.


  • Take the time to play.

  • Take play outside.

  • Share the importance of play with parents and children.

References and Further Reading