Children’s play should be prioritised to support their emotional recovery from the pandemic, leading child psychologist says.

Professor Helen Dodd has joined calls for the Summer of Play campaign, co-ordinated by Playfirst UK, Save the Children, Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales, Playboard Northern Ireland and others, which is appealing for a major national effort to get children playing in order to bolster wellbeing and reduce the risk of any long-term impact on children’s development as a result of recent lockdowns.

Prof Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading said:

“Play with friends is a central part of childhood, it is intrinsically valuable, bringing fun and joy to children’s lives. It also offers opportunities for learning about negotiation, social skills, emotions and relationships. Over the past year children’s play with their friends has been restricted and there is evidence that their mental health has deteriorated.

“Amongst all the talk of educational catch-up it is vital that we don’t forget that children have also missed out on play with their friends, physical activity and fun. In February, PlayFirstUK wrote to government urging them to ensure children get time to play this summer. This campaign builds on that and is about community action; coming together with a wide range of diverse organisations to give children the summer of play they deserve, to help them catch up on so much of what they have missed this past year.”

The call comes as new research conducted by insights consultancy Beano Brain on behalf of Save the Children reveals that 92% of children say the way they play has changed since the pandemic hit.

According to the survey, over half (51%) of children say they are playing outside and with friends less than before the pandemic, while a third (34%) of children said they play alone more than they used to. Almost a quarter (23%) of children revealed they’re playing less sport and being less active than they used to be.

These results follows an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education calling for children’s play to be considered as a priority in conversations about academic catch up; as well as research from Oxford Brookes University which found that lockdown restrictions, reduced external play and more sedentary behaviour had the potential to damage children’s long term development.

The Summer of Play campaign has already won the backing of dozens of eminent organisations – including the Arsenal Foundation, the National Trust, the Lego Foundation and the Science Museum – who are offering resources to ensure that as many children as possible across the UK, particularly those from deprived or marginalised communities, can access fun and safe opportunities to play this summer as Covid restrictions lift.

Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children said: “Children across the UK and around the world have missed out on so much over the past year. Creating more opportunities for children to play is crucial for making up for some of that missed fun and helping to support their health and wellbeing as we emerge from the pandemic.

“We also know that for people living in poverty, accessing safe places to play can be even harder. We want to focus on creating more opportunities for children from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds who have been disporpoprtionately impaced by the pandemic.”

Pete Maginn, Director of Insight at Beano Brain said: “Since the schools first shut in March 2020 we’ve been tracking the behaviours and sentiment of over 3 million kids 7-14 to hear first hand how their lives have changed. The inability to see friends in person has constantly been their biggest concern and our latest research reveals that even now despite restrictions easing they are still not enjoying the play freedom they had before the pandemic.

“Our latest research reveals that half of UK kids (52%) themselves want to use this summer to get outside and play with their friends as freely as possible. Of course their schooling has been disrupted this year but that is nothing compared to the wider social, physical and emotional impact on their lives and social play is the perfect way to help remedy that.”

Anita Grant, Chair of Play England said:

“The pandemic has affected every single child and young person as well as their families and caregivers. Children have been lonely, isolated and anxious. A Summer of Play will enable children to reconnect with friends, have fun and start to rebuild health and resilience after unprecedented restrictions.

“This campaign is for the next generation’s health, happiness and wellbeing. Free play is what children do when no-one is telling them what not to do! Playing freely allows brains to think, skills to develop and creativity and imagination to flow. Now is the time to make space for play and to allow children to recover.”