From marble runs to homemade ball pits: how lockdown has changed the face of playtime

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

Making boats out of sticks and leaves from the garden to race in a local stream, creating a family collage together, learning to ride bikes, and even upcycling a denim jacket – mum Chloe Haywood, a fashion designer, has had to get creative to keep her three boys, aged 10, seven and four, entertained during lockdown.

“I didn’t know what to do with them at first,” she says. “We were all getting exhausted with home schooling and needed some playful activities for the afternoons. My eldest is really into drawing – it just seems to relax him. Lockdown for him was really beneficial because he was able to do more practical, creative things than he usually would at school.”

Like the Haywood family, play has taken more of a central role in many families’ lives over the past year. UK sales of board games and jigsaw puzzles soared by 240% during the first week of lockdown as parents tried to keep their children occupied. Overall toy sales increased by 5% in 2020 in the UK to reach £3.3bn. In Swindon, dad Jon Richards, a freelance graphic designer, painted rainbows on the windows with his daughters, made pom-poms, let them paint his toenails, and recreated soft play at home with sofa cushions, yoga mats, ball pits and even a secondhand bouncy castle he found on Facebook.

“My wife’s a nurse so she was working throughout,” he says. “At first, being home with a four- and two-year-old didn’t seem too much of a problem, but after a couple of weeks we were constantly trying to come up with new ideas to keep things interesting. Luckily, I’m still a big kid so I love using the children as an excuse to come up with games or make things.”

The importance of play in childhood cannot be overestimated. It helps children develop skills such as problem solving, socialising, curiosity, creativity, confidence and the ability to learn from mistakes. There are benefits for parents too. Research by the LEGO Group that included almost 13,000 parents around the world found that 89% enjoy playtime as much as their child does and 91% believe it’s good for their own wellbeing.

High angle view of father and children playing with toy kitchen in bedroom at home
Creative play is a great way for parents and children to connect with each other. Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

What can be challenging for some parents is knowing how to play, Roberta Sandri, an experience design specialist at the LEGO Foundation, says. “One of our tasks is to demystify playing with children using just the materials you have around you. Play can be a great coping mechanism, a way to connect and bond with your child.”

During the pandemic, Sandri and her colleague James Norwood focused much of their work on developing activities for parents that can be done at home. The Create with Anything project and LEGO Playlist are a series of ideas that require nothing more than paper, plastic bottles, cardboard and other discarded materials. The response so far has been very positive. As well as resources being available to download online in a few countries – where it is being piloted – 140,000 play kits have been distributed to vulnerable families in Colombia, which included advice about learning through play, activity ideas, challenges, and materials such as scissors, thick paper, and pencils.

Playing jumping jacks with bottle caps, setting up a marble run in the living room, or engaging in a funny counting game sound like simple ideas but all of the activities consider the five characteristics of play. “At the LEGO Foundation, we believe that playful experiences should be actively engaging, iterative, meaningful, joyful, and socially interactive,” Norwood says. It’s something parents shouldn’t be daunted by – they’re already doing it. “When our children are babies, we pull faces, we play peekaboo, we make silly sounds – this is all play. And it’s a mutually beneficial experience,” he says.

From birth to age three is an extremely important stage when it comes to play and early childhood brain development, Gemma Tumelty, playful parenting initiative lead at the LEGO Foundation, says. “In the early years, it’s all about ‘serve and return’. Babies are hardwired to seek engagement and responses to their cues from their parents and caregivers – this is how their brain develops and they learn, so being responsive and interacting with them playfully really matters,” she says.

A significant challenge when looking to increase the prioritisation of play among parents is the wide contextual variation of how play is understood and supported in home and community settings around the world. Through its work, the LEGO Foundation says it knows that parents in Zambia understand play and their role in supporting and engaging in play-based activities differently from parents in the UK. It’s important to understand these differences and to adapt support to “engage with families and communities in ways that resonate and are meaningful for them”, Tumelty says.

To tackle that challenge, the LEGO Foundation is working with a number of partners in Zambia, Guatemala, Serbia, Rwanda and Bhutan to adapt, implement and scale programmes that are designed to help parents recognise the value of engaging in play with their children in support of their learning and development and to create stronger family bonds. In these programmes, parents are supported on how to recognise and be responsive to babies’ cues, how to make toys and instruments out of household objects, how to create opportunities for play within the context of everyday life, and how to support children’s independent play.

“These programmes are absolutely needed globally to enhance those parent-child relationships and promote the healthy early development of children,” Tumelty says. “The impact on early cognitive language, motor skills, social and emotional development are huge. And giving parents the confidence to play with their children increases their coping skills, reduces stress and improves their responsiveness to their children’s needs.”

Related: Local rhymes and puppet shows: how refugee children are learning through play

Educational psychologist and play therapist Melanie Adkins says many adults feel disconnected from play but it’s “the natural form of communication between adults and children. It’s the thing we do before words.” Playing with dough, scribbling on a pavement with chalk, chatting together while colouring, or constructing mud kitchens in the garden are all great ways for parents and children to connect with each other, particularly if children are encouraged to take the lead. “That can be very empowering to them,” she says. “Play is a way for children to learn and take risks safely.”

Tapping into creativity through play also has benefits when it comes to mental health – for adults as well as children. Research has found that play releases endorphins, which “counteracts stress hormones and helps when you’re feeling anxious or angry or unsure,” Adkins says.

Richards is back in the office now, but he’s definitely noticed a shift in how he plays with his daughters since lockdown. “We have learned to enjoy home more, and not just rely on the park or soft play,” he says. “I was a bit gutted when furlough was over. We made so many great memories.”

Are you looking for fun and engaging learning through play activities for your children? Visit the LEGO Foundation’s Playlist

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