COVID-19 shows the importance of building play into the fabric of education and child support strategies

Early in the first lockdown, a playworker asked on social media: ‘Could playwork be considered as key working?’ This question has developed into a two-year study at Swansea University

Pete King

Monday 23 March 2020 is embedded in our memories as the official start of lockdown in the United Kingdom. One immediate impact was that, whereas children had previously been able to play in the streets, schools, parks, open spaces, adventure playgrounds, after-school clubs and holiday playschemes, suddenly many children and young people only had their home – and if they were lucky, a garden – to play in.

My practice is based on the profession of playwork, where adults support the process of play. Children lead and direct their play, with the playworker’s role being to facilitate and intervene when invited to do so. Developing research in this field underlines that playwork is a growing profession that has its own set of qualifications.

However, as with most child-related provisions that were not supporting children of key workers or vulnerable children, playwork came to a complete halt on that fateful day in March 2020. In so doing, COVID-19 highlighted the importance of play to children’s health, wellbeing and resilience. This was evident across social media, where parents, teachers, researchers and anyone who works with children in a play context were soon advocating for the necessary space, resources and time for children to play with their peers post-lockdown to aid their recovery emotionally, physically and socially.

Even during the first lockdown, playwork and teaching managed to combine to support children – the kind of collaborations that had been going under the radar pre-lockdown. Indeed, one playworker on a playwork social media site posed the question: ‘Could playwork be considered as key working?’

This question spurred me to initiate a two-year study at Swansea University, which I started at the onset of the first lockdown with research involving 23 playwork professionals looking at the impact of COVID-19 on playwork – and whether it could indeed be considered as a key working role.

This has been followed by further studies on (i) adventure playgrounds, (ii) after-school provision, and (iii) a play service in Wales that supported schools during the pandemic. A final over-arching study has just begun, mapping how playwork adapted to support children’s play during the first and subsequent lockdowns, as well how it operated during the brief return to ‘normality’ in July 2020, and also one year on from that.

A pioneering example of play support

Playwork in the United Kingdom developed from the adventure playground movement of the 1970s. Playwork practice can still be found in these settings along with after-school clubs, holiday playschemes and mobile play projects that run within children and young people’s communities. Like many practices within children’s services, playwork has been impacted by austerity policies; funding has never been guaranteed across the statutory, voluntary and business sectors, and the playwork profession has had to be both adaptable and versatile to any available funding streams or government commitments.

A case in point is Torfaen in South-east Wales, whose borough council has had a play service ever since 2004. This service has long supported many primary schools via breakfast and after-school clubs, during break times, and through some one-to-one bespoke work.

When the COVID-19 lockdown was introduced, the school hubs that were created there for key worker children and vulnerable children were initially run by teaching staff, supported by members of the play service. As the lockdown continued, however, the play service played a more leading role in these hubs, using play as the focus.

Strikingly, when schools re-opened, many continued to rely on these wellbeing playworkers – in some cases supporting staff in the classrooms using their playwork approach. In my subsequent interviews with headteachers, they talked about the strong relationships these wellbeing playworkers developed with the children, the school, and the parents in the wider community. The headteachers said they felt the wellbeing playworkers were considered as part of the school team, and the quality of service provided was excellent.

Even before the pandemic, the Welsh Government had put in place legislation for schools in Wales to address wellbeing – and the inclusion of wellbeing playworkers in this reflected the need for a ‘whole-school approach’ to wellbeing. What COVID-19 and the partnership of schools and play services in Torfaen has shown is how play, and supporting the process of play, can contribute to children’s health, wellbeing and resilience.

Building on the ‘Summer of Play’

At a national level, from the Summer of Play drive on social media and in newspapers to widespread public concern over how children would react when returning to their schools from online teaching, the role of play has been given much greater priority during COVID-19.

In Wales, the Welsh Government provided an extra £5 million this year to promote a ‘summer of fun’. This money enabled much-needed play-based activities and provision to be provided for children and young people in the summer holidays, something that was missing for many children a year ago. The Welsh Government recently announced a further £36 million funding to support children and families recovering from the pandemic, of which £20 million is available to access play experiences.

Wales was the first country in the world to introduce a government play policy in 2002, (followed up by its play strategy in 2006), and to pass legislation in 2010 that placed a statutory duty on all 22 local authorities in Wales to undertake a Play Sufficiency Assessment every three years. In addition, the Welsh Government’s current Play Review has enabled play to remain a high priority for children and young people in Wales as we continue to live through the pandemic.

The longitudinal research around playwork and COVID-19 indicates how play is important for children of all ages. The example in Wales shows that a combination of play policy, legislation, funding and a skilled workforce can support child-led, self-directed play which brings huge value to their health, wellbeing and resilience.

While play was, in recent years, not being invested in across many local authority areas due to austerity and a lack of funding, where it did continue to be funded in Torfaen, it was then able to provide an immediate response to support children in the local area’s hubs when the crisis struck. Funding and investment go hand-in-hand with policy and legislation.

Wales – and in particular, Torfaen – had this in place with the play policy, play strategy and statutory duty providing strategic support for the work of the play team. History will show us that investment in play supports children’s health, wellbeing and resilience not only during a pandemic, but throughout their lives.

Dr Pete King is the programme manager for the MA Developmental and Therapeutic Play and MA Childhood Studies Programmes at Swansea University