Many children’s lives have changed dramatically in recent months due to the COVID-19 crisis. Researchers in Mary Immaculate College launched an online survey of parents of children aged 1-10 years in May 2020 to explore how these changes have affected children’s play, learning and development. The preliminary findings suggest that some children will need a lot of additional support in the coming months, which has implications for those who care for them.
The Play and Learning in the Early Years (PLEY) Survey measured play activities at home, the factors that influence it and the impact of some of the restrictions on children. Over 500 parents completed the survey between 21 May and 3 June 2020. The initial findings indicate the closure of schools, creches, playgrounds and restrictions on physical movement and interactions has had a number of effects on many aspects of children’s lives, including on their play, their social relationships and emotional development.
The responses from most parents of children aged 1 to 5 years indicated that their child’s play has been affected by the restrictions (74%). Many children are spending more time on outdoor play than before the restrictions were introduced (78%), and also more time on screens (75%). A third of children in this age group have brought information about the virus or restrictions into their play. For example, one parent said “She wipes things down after seeing me do it” (Age 1), while another said “Play house – I asked to come in and he said I couldn’t because of the virus” (Age 3).
In addition to the effects that the restrictions have had on children’s play, there have been social and emotional effects also. Most of these young children are missing childcare (67%), their friends (84%) and playing with other children (84%). More worryingly, some parents have described their young child’s low mood, frustration and behaviour changes as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. For example, in relation to the changes parents have said:
- “My daughter was attending creche. She was very out going and loved seeing her friends. Now she has become very very attached to mum and is cautious at first when she sees some one out of the family home. Before the virus she used to be so out going”. (Age of Child: 2 years, 6 months)
- “Difficulty seeing people. Finds it strange to spend any time communicating with other people that are not her direct family members” (Age: 2 years, 6 months)
- “She seems more subdued and wants to go to bed often” (Age: 2 years, 3 months).
- “He is very spaced out, not the same child at all” (Age: 3 years, 1 month).
- “He’s sad and less willing to share” (Age: 4 years, 5 months).
- “Emotionally a lot more demanding and behaviours have reverted to that of a younger child. Also he had speech issues which had much improved after speech therapy but this has also regressed” (Age: 5 years, 1 month).
The DCYA public health advice, and existing and new hygiene practices are of paramount importance for the safe reopening of early years settings in Ireland. However, children will likely be returning to a somewhat changed physical environment, with restrictions for health and safety reasons placed on who they can interact with, what they can play with and what they can do. This will be a further change for young children on top of the many other changes they have recently experienced, including for some the death of a family member. Many children returning to childcare in the coming weeks may not be the ‘same child at all’ that left childcare in March.
The play pod model proposed in Ireland will hopefully fulfil the aim of supporting ‘close, positive interactions between children and their adult caregivers’. However, the nurturing and responsive high quality care provided by early childhood professionals, alongside that of parents and health and social care professionals where needed, will be essential in supporting young children through this challenging period.
For useful advice and suggestions for early years professionals please see the recent blog ‘Pod Talk’ by Milica Atanackovic
PLEY Survey: Data analysis on the PLEY Survey is ongoing but some additional information on the early findings is available here