The power of play in the pandemic

Play is key for child development and the mental health of children and caregivers.

Play is an essential part of development in the early years. Play is the way young children from birth to three  learn, as they  explore and begin to make sense of the world around them. Research shows that play supports many interrelated facets of development including cognitive, physical, social, emotional and language development in young children, setting the foundation on which new learning builds  throughout a child’s life.  Through play, young children develop social connections, which help regulate emotions, enhance self-esteem and empathy, and even improve the immune system! Playful interactions with parents help children develop their social-emotional skills, including how to manage their emotions and be in relationship with others – important for future emotional health and lifelong skills development.

Recent research also shows that playful interactions with young children contributes to parental well-being and positive mental health. This is key, as we know that parental mental health is an essential driver of optimal child development. Parents who struggle with their own mental health tend to be less responsive to their children’s cues and might find it difficult to provide nurturing and responsive care. When parents engage in meaningful play with their children, they are not only supporting their child’s development but also improving  their own emotional well-being.  A recent study in Pakistan found that mothers who engaged in a parent-child play activity with their children over a 10-week period had a decline in depressive symptoms.

This evidence doesn’t just come from research studies – parents themselves report that playing with their children makes them feel good. In 2018 the LEGO Play Well report found that 9 in 10 parents say play is fundamental to their own happiness and makes them feel more relaxed, energized, and creative. It also found that play has positive effects on family life, with ninety percent of parents saying play strengthens family relationships and helps them get to know their children better.

Now, more than ever, we must leverage the power of play to promote parental mental health and child development

©UNICEF/2604/KragujevacA home-visiting nurse uses the Caring for the Caregiver approach in Serbia as part of the UNICEF-LEGO Foundation Playful Parenting programme

For many caregivers, playful interactions with children have never been more important than in the current moment when both child development and parental mental health and well-being are at risk given the consequences of global COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the pandemic, parents and caregivers have had to manage increased financial, personal, and professional stressors.  It has become clear that the stressors of the pandemic, coupled with social isolation, have had a negative effect on the mental health and wellbeing of parents as they try to navigate a new ‘normal’  for themselves and their families.

While it may seem difficult to find the time or energy for engaging in playful experiences, here are the ways that just a little play time can support well-being and development:

  • Firstly, as parents contend with the multiple challenges they are facing during the pandemic, engaging in meaningful play activities with their children can improve their mental health and well-being. It’s true that during stressful periods, it can be hard to feel like playing, or prioritize the time for play. However it is during these times that play is most needed. Singing, dancing, and playing games together are good stress relievers, and are a great way for both children and caregivers alike to have fun even in the midst of stressful situations.
  • Secondly, play can also strengthen positive parent-child interactions, which are key for young children’s development. This is particularly important in light of lockdowns and childcare closures which have left children isolated from their friends and peers. As children’s first playmate, parents can continue to provide opportunities for early learning and social connection even while at home. Play also empowers and builds confidence for children and caregivers alike. By playing with their parents, children can learn they are loved, important and fun to be around. By playing with their children, parents can have fun, and be reminded of their unique ability to provide their children with comfort, connection, and love. Even in stressful times, these positive parent-child interactions can lay a foundation for social-emotional skills development and mental health that will last into the future.
  • Finally, as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its eighteenth month, play is also an important way of protecting children from the negative impacts of prolonged exposure to stress. The Harvard Centre for the Developing Child considers exposure to prolonged adversity a source of toxic stress, which can have serious negative impacts on both physical and mental health across the lifespan. Supportive, stable relationships with adults can buffer children from stress and protect their development, even in adversity.

 

As part of its current partnership, UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation have developed the Playful Parenting and Responding to the Crisis of Care and Learning programmes. These programmes support countries around the world to improve the capacity of frontline workers and provide timely support and information in order to promote the mental health and emotional well-being of parents so they can provide nurturing care and engage in playful interactions with their young children.

As part of this initiative, a new training package for frontline workers called Caring for the Caregiver (CFC) has been created, in collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand and Harvard University. It is being validated in eight countries and will be ready for global roll-out in the second part of 2021.

The CFC approach uses activity-based learning to promote emotional awareness and self-care, encourage partner and family support, develop strategies to deal with conflict, and learn problem-solving skills, particularly in contexts of high levels of adversity.

“I was stressed, but thanks to the community health worker’s advice … I have mental stability … my child is becoming more and more open to interacting, which brings me joy.” – Mother, Koutiala Cercle Nutrition support, Pilot of Caring for the Caregivers, Mali 2018

As illustrated below, play is a core element of the approach:

Dealing with emotions and stress

Risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and thoughts of self-harm may be elevated for caregivers during the pandemic, especially for those with pre-existing problems. Engaging in fun activities and play can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals!

Family conflict strategies

Families that regularly interact with each other in positive, playful ways can build strong bonds that can help them deal with and diffuse conflict when it arises within the family. This is especially important during the pandemic, when violence against both caregivers and children has been on the rise globally.

Strengthening interactions and relationships

As part of its “connect” component, CFC uses play to strengthen the quality of child-caregiver interactions and relationships, which in turn helps both to strengthen their resiliency and coping skills and foster optimal child development.

Routines

CFC helps families create a nurturing environment where children and family members engage in learning though play as part of regular everyday activities while also encouraging a balanced sharing of caregiving and domestic responsibilities among caregivers.

When the pandemic began in early 2020, there was an immediate need for messages, activities, and strategies to support caregiver mental health. To meet this need, a new guide, entitled

Caring for the Caregiver during the COVID-19 Crisis, provides evidence-based messages, practical guidance, case studies and resources that can be used to promote parents’ and caregivers’ mental health during the COVID-19 crisis and recovery period.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly left a mark on every parent, and the Caring for the Caregiver program has come at the right moment. As the trusted professionals and friend of the family, we can learn about the mental health needs of the family and provide first line listening support and advice. – Home visiting nurse, Novi Sad, Serbia

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for parents and children alike. UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation remain committed to continue to support parents and children during the crisis to ensure that this generation of young children not only survive but also thrive.