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On Playday, we must discuss how to turn COVID-19 summer support schemes into a long-term strategy for children’s wellbeing

This year’s theme, Summer of Play, mirrors the campaign that Save The Children has been leading to support those most affected by the pandemic. The charity’s Director of UK Impact says this initiative should now be turned into an annual commitment

Dan Paskins

As a children’s charity that’s been working with children all over the world during the pandemic, we know that many of the experiences of COVID-19 have been universal – but not uniform.  Children all over the world have suffered family bereavements, hunger, loss of learning, increased risk of experiencing violence, and many other significant impacts. In the years to come, our collective response needs to put intergenerational justice at its heart.

In the UK, Save the Children has been working with local partners in communities across the four nations to provide practical help as part of our Emergency Response programme. We’ve distributed food vouchers, basic goods vouchers, toys and learning packs to more than 15,000 children and their families – while also supporting the campaign led by Marcus Rashford to tackle child food poverty, and working with many other charities to extend the increase in Universal Credit. And while doing all this, we have been listening to children and families about what matters to them.

Earlier this year, we started to hear concerns about the impact of lockdowns on learning. In particular, language from senior politicians about children ‘falling behind’ and needing to ‘catch up’ was causing a lot of worry and stress to children and their parents or carers, at a time when they already had so much to deal with. There were even suggestions that during the summer holidays, children needed to be in school doing extra academic learning.

It is, of course, vital that children get extra support with their learning as we recover from COVID-19. Boosting educational attainment and closing the attainment gap between children growing up in low-income households and their better-off peers is one of the very best long-term solutions to poverty – in the UK and around the world.

However, the evidence is also abundantly clear that to make this happen requires a focus on making sure children can be happy and healthy. This summer holiday provides an amazing opportunity to boost children’s mental and physical wellbeing by enabling them to play: to have fun, spend time with friends, and enjoy the freedom to explore and try new things.

However, one summer is not the end of the story. We need to ensure the collective learnings assembled during the pandemic are translated into a long-term, systemic shift in the way we support our children’s wellbeing, both in and out of school.

The Summer of Play campaign

Today (4 August 2021) is ‘Playday’, the UK’s national day of play. This year’s theme, Summer of Play, mirrors the campaign that Save The Children has worked on with many other organisations this year, including Playfirst UK, a group of child development experts, and Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales and Playboard Northern Ireland. Together, we created a simple pledge to which other organisations could sign up – namely, to do their bit to make this summer a time of Fun, Friends and Freedom.

Launched in May 2021 with around 15 initial signatories, by the start of the summer holidays nearly 400 businesses, charities and councils had signed up to the campaign. From household names including the Lego, Arsenal and Greggs Foundations and Hasbro, to local charities and businesses, this pledge clearly tapped into a widely-held view that play is an effective way of improving children’s mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s been particularly noteworthy to see the innovation and ambition of campaigns powered by local communities – such as the growing Play Streets movement championed by Playing Out, and the use of new technology, such as how ‘Beat the Street’ is turning entire cities and towns into giant playgrounds filled with fun activities for children via a free-to-download app. The Scottish Government committed £20m to a Summer of Play, and the UK government cited research by Save the Children and Beano Brain when launching its ‘Rediscover Summer’ campaign.

But while the first summer holidays after lockdown restrictions have (mostly) ended are a key moment for children, the need to enable them to play and enjoy fun, friends and freedom will last long beyond this summer.

A long-term plan to support the children who need it most

Even before the pandemic, the experience of the summer holidays was very different for children in affluent households, compared with those growing up in low-income households and those where their parents or carers had little time to spend with them because of their work or other commitments. As a result, every year the academic attainment gap increases between the end of the summer term and the start of the autumn term.

After a decade of austerity, many of the free or low-cost activities that used to be offered in mitigation have disappeared. Provision is fragmented, and even basic information such as how much local authorities in England spend on summer holiday activities does not exist.

Through the school system, and also for an increasing number of children of pre-school age, the state takes a close interest for most of the year in how children spend their time and what they need in order to fulfil their potential, with a specific focus on reducing inequalities. During the summer months, nothing like this exists.

There could therefore be an opportunity for researchers, policymakers, families, government, civil society and businesses to come together, listen to and involve children, and create new kinds of networks, relationships and support throughout the summer holidays. The opportunity to play can become an integral part of how we seek to reduce inequalities, boost educational outcomes and improve mental and physical health. A key part of our collective recovery from COVID-19 could be to ensure that every summer is a time when all children, whatever their background, are able to benefit from fun, friends and freedom.

As a first step, we will be gathering the stories, insights and ideas from those taking part in the Summer of Play campaign, and will share what we hear and we learn. If you’re interested in finding out more about what we discover, and if this future ambition is one which excites you, we’d love to hear from you.

Dan Paskins is the Director of UK Impact at Save the Children. Read more about the Summer of Play campaign here.