Learning offline - the role of play

At the start of the first national lockdown in March 2020, UNICEF UK estimated that 700 million days of education would be lost by the summer. The charity went on to predict widening gaps in educational attainment because of disparities in access to resources and support at home. By June, the ONS reported that approximately 70% of working parents had had to adapt the way they worked, freeing up time during the day for childcare, including home schooling, in order to support their children’s learning.

Balancing home schooling with other commitments

The return to lockdown and home schooling for families around the UK this month brings with it renewed stresses of prioritising children’s learning while balancing other important commitments, including paid employment. Many parents view the task of maintaining an uninterrupted, quality educational experience for their children as a daunting responsibility for which they are unqualified. But are we putting ourselves under too much pressure?

According to Professor Tony Gallagher, one of the world’s leading academic experts on the role of education in divided societies, it’s important to compromise:"There is a balance to be struck,” he says. “It’s important to develop some sort of routine, so there is a bit of order and predictability to the day. However, it shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. It should be reasonably relaxed; it should be fun...”

An opportunity to use play as an strategy for learning

Family Links the Centre for Emotional Health, is urging parents and carers – especially of younger children – to be realistic about what is possible and, importantly, to use this opportunity to acknowledge and promote play as an essential strategy for learning.

Play supports cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development in children, encouraging them to develop creativity through their imagination, and is particularly important to healthy brain development: it is through play that young children learn to engage with the world around them. As such, play is seen as a vital component of any home schooling curriculum.

Rowen Smith, Family Links’ Head of Training comments: “We’re acutely aware of the current pressures on parents, but it’s important to be flexible to reduce the risk of negative impacts on relationships with our children and other family members. The value of play as an educational tool cannot be understated. Apart from the obvious intellectual benefits like counting, verbalising and explaining, memory and attention, there are the physical benefits of large and small movement, as well as the emotional benefits of expressing feelings like anger, jealousy, joy, excitement or frustration."

"Play also aids social development, showing children how to work together and compromise, take turns, empathise, to test boundaries and to try new things.

Be realistic and trust your instincts

So, how can parents reduce the pressures on themselves to feel responsibility for ‘missed’ education? Be realistic is good advice. The government and schools do not expect us to be educators. We cannot replicate what our schools and teachers deliver, but we can introduce a flexible timetable that builds in time for learning, play, and rest alongside our other commitments. And remember too that, as parents and carers, we know our children better than anyone else. Trust your instincts.

Rowen comments: “It’s important that we acknowledge the value of child-led play. We don’t always have to set up play for them: so much of play is built around exploring and expressing feelings, so it’s helpful for adults to sometimes encourage children to lead the play and to follow them, building confidence, empowerment, and self-esteem, in addition to the creativity and imagination it takes to develop that playful scenario."

He concludes, “Play means different things to different age groups, but it’s a promoter of emotional wellbeing and something that is not restricted to young children. Be playful in your relationships whatever age you are, be silly occasionally and introduce some fun. Central to Family Links’ ethos are the key concepts of appropriate expectations and nurturing ourselves and our relationships; that’s really critical in helping us get through this latest lockdown."

Family Links Resources:

Professionals: See details for the 1-day training Playful Parenting, here.

Parents/ carers: See a list of free or cheap games and activities to play at home here.