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Let the children play this summer say leading psychologists – University of Reading

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Let the children play this summer say leading psychologists

Release Date 13 February 2021

Children playing together in a sunny playground


Children should be given opportunity to play with their friends, be physically active and spend time outdoors in order to support their mental health according to a group of leading experts.

Following a successful campaign last year, PlayFirstUK have written to the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, calling for decisions over children’s education and the easing of lockdown to prioritise social and emotional wellbeing.

The group includes 15 child psychologists and education specialists, led by Professor Helen Dodd from the University of Reading. They make three key recommendations for the easing of lockdown restrictions and move back to more face-to-face educational learning. Among them, the group call on the Government to make children exempt from the rule of two as soon as it is safe enough to do so and for schools to be given resources and support to prioritise children’s mental health when they return.

The group of academics from the Universities of Reading, Sussex, Cambridge, Bath and Gloucester warn that plans for intensive ‘catch up’ activity may worsen children’s mental health and wellbeing. Not only would this lead to increased pressure on mental health services, filling the spring and summer term with additional lessons and pressure, at a cost to time playing with friends and receiving support for mental health problems, would have a negative effect on children’s learning in the long term.

Instead, they are calling for children’s ability to socialise and play with their friends to be prioritised as restrictions are reviewed. They argue that in the long-term this will be more beneficial for resilience and educational outcomes.

Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading and a member of Play First group said:

“We are really concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children; research shows clear increases in mental health problems and loneliness. As part of the recovery process, children need time to reconnect and play with their friends, they need to be reminded how good it feels to be outdoors after so long inside and they need to get physically active again. There is understandable concern about children’s education but the impact of mental health problems in childhood can be lifelong.

“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, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at 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.

“As lockdown eases, what children need is the time and space to reconnect and play with their friends because this is important for their emotional wellbeing and their academic achievement.

“For schools and parents, the pressure to ensure that children ‘catch up’ academically should be eased and instead schools must be given the resources and guidance to focus on putting children’s social and emotional wellbeing first.”  

Anita Grant, Chair of Play England said: 

“This has been a time of massive anxiety, fear and stress for us all and children have been amongst the hardest hit. Children who feel anxious do not feel safe. As we move forward we need to think long and hard about how to support children to play freely, reconnect with their world and feel happy in their communities.

“Everything that we do in the recovery needs to support children to build resilience, work through trauma, make friends and enjoy themselves. Play is the way that children do all those things so giving them the space, time and permission to play is the best thing that we can do.” 

The full letter is available at:



The text of the letter is reproduced below:

Play First: Supporting Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing During and After Lockdown

We first wrote to you on 6th May 2020 as part of the #playfirst campaign to ask that children’s social and emotional wellbeing be prioritised during the easing of the first lockdown. The campaign attracted a lot of media attention and support from the public as well as officials across the four nations. We were pleased to see the Government’s position that schools should be last to close and first to open.

Nevertheless, nine months later, children are still living under Covid-19 restrictions which prevent them from spending time playing with friends. Despite the positive impact of our campaign, over the past year we have seen unprecedented increases in children’s mental health problems as well as decreases in physical activity, increases in loneliness and reduced academic motivation. As experts in children’s mental health and development we write again to urge the Government to prioritise children’s social and emotional wellbeing in all decisions related to the easing of lockdown restrictions and children’s education.

We would specifically like to make the following evidence-based recommendations:

1. The easing of lockdown restrictions should be done in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers as soon as possible. In Scotland, children under 12 are exempt from the two person rule, meaning that children are still able to socialise and play with their peers.

We recommend that, as soon as it is possible to do so, this exemption be extended to all UK children and then to adolescents. During childhood and adolescence, social and emotional skills develop rapidly. This development relies on children interacting and playing with their peers and being exposed to a broad range of experiences.

The longer that children are isolated, the more likely it is that their typical development will be affected. It is therefore wholly justifiable that children’s social interaction be prioritised before adult social interaction.

2. Pressure on schools to ensure that children ‘catch-up’ academically must be eased and, instead, schools should be given guidance and resources that will allow them to focus first on children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

There is understandable concern about children’s education but children will not learn effectively if their mental health is poor. The Government must honour the commitment they have made to children’s mental health, which is more important now than ever. Social interaction, play, physical activity and good mental health needs to come first.

We wholeheartedly support Sir Kevan Collins’ call for play, music, drama and sport for children and urge you to ensure that these activities are given protected time and allocated resources as children transition back to school.

3. This spring and summer should not be filled with extra lessons; children, teachers and parents need time and space to recover from the stress that the past year has placed on them.10 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. 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.

We recognise that these are complex decisions and there are many views to take into consideration but we urge you to give children’s emotional wellbeing and mental health the priority it deserves when policy decisions are made in the coming weeks and months; poor emotional health in children leads to long term mental health problems, poorer educational attainment and has a considerable economic burden. 

Give children time to play.

Yours sincerely,

Prof Helen Dodd (University of Reading) on behalf of @playfirstuk: Prof Sam Cartwright-Hatton, Dr Kathryn Lester, Prof Robin Banerjee, Prof Alison Pike, Prof Nicola Yuill and Alison Lacey (University of Sussex); Dr Jenny Gibson and Prof Paul Ramchandani (University of Cambridge); Rachel Hurding (The Ellis C of E Primary School, Barnsley); Dr Maria Loades (University of Bath); Dr James Murray (Guernsey CAMHS); Prof Shirley Reynolds (University of Reading); Dr Wendy Russell (University of Gloucestershire); Zoe Singh (Lydgate Infant School, Sheffield), 


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