Experts in child development are calling on the government to support a “summer of play” to help pupils in England recover from the stress of lockdown and a year of Covid upheaval.
Instead of extra lessons, catch-up summer schools and longer school days, they said children should be encouraged to spend the coming months outdoors, being physically active and having fun with their friends.
Psychologists have reported behavioural changes in some children following the first lockdown last year. After months of isolation from friends, some struggled to share and play together, teachers reported more fights and fallings-out, and Ofsted observed a worrying drop in physical fitness.
As the government draws up its latest education catch-up plans, to be unveiled in the coming weeks, a group of academics calling themselves PlayFirstUK have written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, appealing for a new emphasis on play, mental health and wellbeing as children emerge from lockdown.
“This spring and summer should not be filled with extra lessons,” the letter says. “Children, teachers and parents need time and space to recover from the stress that the past year has placed on them.
“As part of a wider recovery process, children should be encouraged and supported to spend time outdoors, playing with other children and being physically active. Where it is needed, evidence-based mental health support must be made available.”
It continues: “This is not an either-or decision. Social connection and play offer myriad learning opportunities and are positively associated with children’s academic attainment and literacy.”
The group cautioned that intensive “catch-up” plans, intended to help pupils make up lost ground as a result of the pandemic, could end up worsening children’s mental health and wellbeing, and have a negative effect on learning in the long term.
The government’s attitude to children’s play came into focus this week when two young children were ordered home by police officers after building a snowman in a local park. Downing Street clarified that children could use playgrounds for exercise but not for socialising.
The intervention by PlayFirstUK, which includes 15 child psychologists and education specialists, follows the appointment of a education recovery commissioner to mastermind the government’s efforts to address mounting learning loss among primary and secondary school children.
Ministers have set up a £1.3bn catch-up fund to boost learning among disadvantaged children who have lost out most during lockdown, including a national tutoring programme offering subsidised one-to-one and small group tuition within schools. Critics including the Institute for Fiscal Studies have said it does not go far enough.
A recent study found a seven-month attainment gap between disadvantaged primary school pupils and their better-off classmates, while six- and seven-year-old pupils made on average about two months’ less progress in maths and reading in autumn 2020 compared with a 2017 cohort.
This week ministers confirmed they were considering extending the school day and lengthening the summer term to help children catch up with their studies, though Sir Kevan Collins, the new “catch-up tsar”, acknowledged the importance of play, music, drama and sport in his first interview.
PlayFirstUK, which includes academics from the universities of Reading, Sussex, Cambridge, Bath and Gloucester and was set up during the first lockdown, highlighted unprecedented increases in children’s mental health problems during the pandemic, as well as increased loneliness and reduced academic motivation.
“There is understandable concern about children’s education but children will not learn effectively if their mental health is poor,” the letter says. “Social interaction, play, physical activity and good mental health needs to come first.”
Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at Reading University and a member of PlayFirstUK, said: “This letter is really a plea from us that children’s mental health and their right to play and have fun with their friends are not forgotten in a rush to catch them up to educational targets that adults have set for them.
“If we do not get this right we run the risk of pushing struggling children back into a pressured educational environment, which could cause further damage to their mental health and development. Our children have missed out on enough over the past year. They deserve a summer filled with play.”
Dr Kathryn Lester, of the University of Sussex, said: “It is now more important than ever that the government stands by its commitment to children’s mental health. While there is an understandable focus on children catching up academically, we know that children cannot learn effectively when they are struggling emotionally.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know the pandemic and restrictions have had an impact on many children and young people’s mental health, and that’s why we are working to fully reopen schools as soon as possible. To support children returning to schools, we have an £8m wellbeing programme in place which facilitates local expert support for education staff to respond to emotional and mental health pressures some children and young people may be facing.”