Our new normal and the vital role of outdoor child led play

Covid 19 is a health crisis- a physical and mental health one. While children appear to be less impacted by the physical illness they do not appear to be spared the mental health impacts of the control measures, changes to routines and anxieties of living in a global pandemic. This blog post looks at the role child led outdoor play has to play in promoting the mental health of children.

The context

During lockdown 1 calls to Childline and the NSPCC support phone line skyrocketed. The government and children’s charities have produced information about the impact upon safeguarding for both parents and professionals, citing both an increase in concerns and a decrease in the ability to access support. The NHS has online advice on how to support children deal with the pandemic. Children and young peoples mental health services have also adapted and are now providing advice and support online around the virus.

All children will be feeling the affects of the pandemic, of particular note are those children with additional needs. SEND children have had their support needs put to one side, as EHCP targets could not be met. Children living with domestic violence were disproportionally affected, reports of domestic violence increased dramatically. One in four women experience domestic abuse, that is at least 7 children in each classroom. Children living in low income families were further disadvantaged as the surge in food bank donations illustrates. Those children whose parents are prone to self medicating or have pre-existing mental health issues would also have be significantly affected.

Covid 19 is a health crisis- a physical and a mental health one. MIND, a leading mental health charity, conducted research on the impact on the pandemic. Matthew Hotopf, a professor of general hospital psychiatry at King’s College London, was reported as noting the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on mental health had been significant, in particular on women, young people and people with school-age children.

While there have been obvious variations the level of discomfort and experienced less of an impact than others, The pandemic will has affected all of us. Some children will live in families that have managed the simultaneous transition to home school and home working. Some will have enjoyed their birthdays at home and were able to get all the basic supplies they needed. Some will have had an ok time of it but their world may still feel a little different. Even in the most ideal scenario the context of childhood today is a transition to a ‘new normal’. Our world has changed.

Why is outdoor child led play so important?

Throughout human history play has quite naturally taught children all the skills they need to survive. It is a fundamental human need which has many vital roles. It teaches us how to move, talk, socialise, problem solve, regulate, create and assess risks. Any single one of these roles of play gives a significant place in childhood at any moment in history. However, as our new normal emerges it is the emotional benefits of child led play that are of most worthy of note.

Child led play provides a space like no other to explore emotions, to develop emotional intelligence, to act out real life events and to express feelings in a way that feels safe. In our current climate the role of child led play is essential, particularly if it takes place outdoors. Covid 19 has impacted on family life- on routines, on the use of space in the home, on routines during the school day, on parents/ carers stress levels, on finances and many other areas. Each of these have an impact on children.

Due to the many positive benefits of play on the mental wellbeing of children many organisations are calling for an increased focus on outdoor play in meeting the needs of children in a Covid- world. Play England wrote a briefing specifically about post lockdown play and stated that:

“Play and being outdoors with friends is vital for child and family wellbeing. Play has great therapeutic value for children enabling them 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. Play is important to help children adapt to the changes caused by Coronavirus and lockdown and dealing with transition and returning to school as lockdown eases.”

Since the briefing was written we have entered a second lockdown and children are living with increased safety measures at school along with a rapid rise in positive cases among their peers, increasing the validity of this position.

Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood summarises the available scientific information around Covid and how that relates to children. He states that there are good grounds for thinking that outdoor environments present a low risk of infection and is concerned that “pandemic control measures are likely to lead to significant collateral damage to children, with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children worst affected”. One of the key actions he advocates to support these children is access to the outdoors.

Dr Kathryn Lester, senior lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex, was a part of a recent panel of psychologists, psychiatrists and others urged the government to prioritise children’s play when lifting the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. She noted the vital role play has stating that: “Play has substantial benefits for children’s emotional wellbeing especially during periods of anxiety and stress. It provides a sense of control, it helps children make sense of things they might be struggling to understand, and importantly it makes children happy.” (The Psychologist, May 2020)

Play is a chosen activity, chosen by the child. For children to reap the benefits of play it needs to child led. Play England (undated) describe play as:

“what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons. Play has also frequently been described as ‘what children and young people do when they are not being told what to do by adults’.”

For play to have the greatest impact us grown ups need to allow children the freedom, time and space to access it without imposing our own agendas.

When child led play takes place outdoors it not only reduces the possibility of cross contamination of covid 19 it adds further mental health benefits:

“1) a sense of calm, restoration, and a measurable reduction in stress

2) enhanced mood, reduced anxiety and depression, and
3) improved resilience and ability to cope with adversity” (Christopher, Bailey and Norris 2020)

We all know that after we have spent time in nature we feel calmer, more connected and a part of something bigger than us. The move towards green social prescribing illustrate that these benefits to mental health are being taken on board by the government. On the NHS website page about green social prescribing they explain that:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of being outdoors to people’s mental and physical health”

Being outdoors in a world in which we live alongside covid 19 is good for us all, especially children. Our new normal needs to place real value on the vital role play has in promoting the wellbeing of children. Indeed, the very best thing we can do for children right now is to enable them access to regular child led outdoor play.


Action for Children (July 2020) One in three parents out of their depth as children struggle with pandemic fallout  https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/media-centre/one-in-three-parents-out-of-their-depth-as-children-struggle-with-pandemic-fallout/

Childline Ireland (2020) Childline Covid 19 resilience hub https://www.childline.ie/childline-covid-19-resilience-hub/

Christopher, Bailey and Norris (2020) The urgent need for nature during and after covid 19 https://www.gih.org/views-from-the-field/the-urgent-need-for-nature-during-and-after-covid-19/

Gill, T (2020) Covid-19 and children: what does the science tell us, and what does this mean as the lockdown is eased? https://rethinkingchildhood.com/2020/05/14/covid-19-children-science-lockdown-schools-childcare-outdoor-play/

NHS (2020) Green social prescribing https://www.england.nhs.uk/personalisedcare/social-prescribing/green-social-prescribing/  

Play England (2020) Play after lockdown. A Play England briefing. http://www.playengland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Play_After_Lockdown.pdf

Play England (undated) https://www.playengland.org.uk/about-us/why-play-is-important/

The Conversation (may 13th 2020) Why children need to play with their friends as soon as they can https://theconversation.com/why-children-need-to-play-with-their-friends-as-soon-as-they-can-138066?

 The Guardian (7th May 2020) Prioritise play when schools reopen, say mental health experts https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/07/prioritise-play-when-schools-reopen-say-mental-health-experts-coronavirus-lockdown

The Psychologist (May 2020) Child play a priority after lockdown https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/child-play-priority-after-lockdown

Young Minds (2020) Coronavirus and mental health https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/looking-after-yourself/coronavirus-and-mental-health/

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