The COVID-19 pandemic has generated an unprecedented disruption to family routines. Parents and caregivers around the world face uncertainty, overwhelming stress, and wonder what the consequences will be for young children. This situation has multiple negative effects on the development of children under five years of age, including higher levels of stress and less access to learning opportunities. The discontinuity of childcare services, along with the millions of children out of classrooms, could have overwhelming effects on child development. But in the face of these factors, there is good news. There is a simple, inexpensive, and accessible way for parents and caregivers to continue promoting their children’s development: playing with them. In this article, we present evidence about four benefits of learning through play for child development and of play as a protective factor against stress.
Play is a practical and inexpensive solution. No previous experience is needed!
Children are play experts. Furthermore, playing does not require investing money and is easy to incorporate into families’ daily routines. Families can promote development through simple play activities that can be done at home, with elements common to all households.
This Manual for Parents, developed by the Reach Up home visiting program, offers play and language activities for children between 0-36 months. The “PLAYLIST,” developed by the LEGO Foundation and the LEGO Group, offers high-quality learning through play activities for children over three years of age. The site allows you to search for the appropriate play activity based on age, duration, and materials.
Play strengthens young children’s neural connections
Everyday games between adults and babies are especially powerful for brain development. For example, when a caregiver covers a baby with a blanket and then uncovers her again, there is a moment of pure joy, generated by the interaction itself and the pleasure that the baby’s brain experiences in learning that objects can disappear and reappear and continue to exist.
A review of the neuroscientific evidence and learning through play found that activities characterized by joy, social interaction, active involvement, interaction, and the construction of meanings are associated with higher levels of content learning and the development of scientific and mathematical reasoning, language, self-control, motivation, curiosity, and creativity.
Furthermore, interventions that support parents in strengthening their ability to use receptive interactions and play to promote their children’s development, such as the Jamaica Reach Up home visiting program, have positive effects that extend into adulthood. These positive effects include better academic performance, a lower probability of engaging in violent activities, lower levels of depression; and even higher wages.
Play protects from stress and helps cope with stressful situations
In addition to the benefits for skill development and its positive effects on growth, play also provides a supportive context to help children cope with stress and adversity by enabling them to:
• Create imaginary events that they can control and allow them to express negative emotions, improving their mood freely, and reducing anxiety.
• Understand their experiences and find new ways to cope with stressful situations.
• Develop the ability to regulate their emotions and behavior.
Play also benefits the adults in the family
These benefits extend to parents. A study of 13,000 families in 9 countries found that 9 out of 10 parents expressed that play was essential to their happiness, and made them feel relaxed, energetic, and creative. These benefits also occur in families in adverse situations. An intervention promoting play activities in Pakistan and India showed reductions in symptoms of maternal depression. This seems to indicate that play can also improve adults’ abilities to deal with stress and anxiety.
We have extensive scientific evidence of the importance of learning through play and a growing understanding of the benefits of play as a protective factor in stressful situations, making it a powerful strategy to help children and adults cope with the pandemic. In future articles, we will share innovative ways in which different organizations are reaching out to families during the pandemic.
If you want to read more about childhood development we invite you to check these articles: