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Making sense of the pandemic needs to be child’s play.

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Lin Lin and Lockdown – seeing the pandemic through children’s eyes

“Lin Lin is a four-year-old girl on lockdown. She doesn’t really know why, but she and her family have had to stay at home for weeks now. She hears her parents talking about illness, and talking a lot about grandma and grandpa. Daddy shouts more and Mummy sometimes cries, and they always seem worried. Something bad is out there. Maybe it’s a bad monster trying to get them – Lin Lin isn’t sure. She doesn’t really understand what germs are. She’s never seen one.

So Lin Lin is confused, the world has become a scarier place than usual, smaller, confined and uncertain. She likes being home with Mummy and Daddy more as she gets lots of their attention, but fundamentally she doesn’t feel safe. She has no friends to play with and she cannot run outside and play in the playground. Her days have taken on a new form in their small city flat – less social, less physical, and strangely unsettling.

Food becomes central. Sometimes she likes to play with it and make a mess which irritates Mummy. Occasionally she has online lessons with her classmates but she quickly loses interest if they’re not interactive. Talking heads on screen are not very engaging, and she would prefer a video game with music and clear visuals that she can control.

Her sanctuary is her bedroom, her dolls house and her teddies. She constantly rearranges her toys, ordering and sequencing them and rescuing her teddies from disasters. She builds dens of pillows and her duvet which she and her teddies hide in, and sometimes she has tantrums when her mother tries to clear them up before she has finished.

Her mother worries that Lin Lin is anxious and tries to reassure her that COVID does not really make children ill, but Lin Lin knows it scares her parents so it must be something to worry about. She uses play not just to express her anxiety but also to process it and make sense of the world around her. Playing with her food makes her feel free. Lining up her teddies give her a sense of control. Reorganising her dolls house helps her feel she can influence something. And building safe spaces helps her build resilience. Lin Lin uses play to make sense of her world in the language that works for her.”

As we see in this story there is a new monster hiding under the bed. It may stay there during lockdown, but for many children it may appear out in the world once they go out more.

According to the UN, while children are not the face of the pandemic, they could be some of its biggest victims as the life-protecting measures of lockdown could do more harm than good, with impact long after the virus has been vanquished.

Children have enjoyed more parental attention, but it has also been a time of loss and uncertainty. Loss of friends, loss of play and learning, loss of routine, loss of going to their home countries and seeing loved ones, and sometimes even the loss of those loved ones.

Young children don’t really understand viruses. They can’t weigh up risks and choices or debate the historical lessons of the Spanish Flu. All they know is that something is lurking out there that scares their parents and may hurt grandma and grandpa.

If we as adults feel uncertainty and a lack of control over our lives, then our children experience the same even if they do not articulate it in the same way. They will express it through the language of childhood – in their play. And helping them play will help them deal with the monster.

The power of play has been well documented to help children overcome trauma. After the 9/11 attacks, children in the US were observed to be playing more violent and superhero games than usual. Initially people thought it was down to shocking footage on the television. But after research, documented beautifully in the book, "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence: by Gerard Jones (2003) psychologists realised it was the children’s way of finding their own inner strength and control when they didn’t feel safe. They needed to be the super heroes and overcome the bad and scary things. More recently, in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, play has been used to support Rohingya children to make sense of what they have seen and what they have lost.

Play sessions can help children work through difficult feelings and experiences in non-directed, pre-verbal ways, with great success. Play is a powerful tool to support children’s social, emotional and physiological wellbeing, and we should use it as much as possible.

As schools are poised to reopen, some social contact and routine will return, but the hidden monster still lurks in children’s minds. We can help them build resilience in a way that makes sense to them, by giving them more chances to play in ways that can support the physicality and embodiment of what they are feeling. If children can express their fears through play, the monster under the bed won’t stand a chance.

Top tips for supporting children to play for wellbeing

1. Let the children lead the play

2. Create safe but free spaces

3. Facilitate, don’t direct

4. Make play multisensory

5. Work with developmental needs of the child

6. Ensure lots of opportunities for movement and physical expression

7. Don’t make play too verbal, let them express but don’t ask too many questions

8. Remember there are no rights and wrongs in play.

Play resources from CreateCATT

1) Free play resources designed to support children play in the way they need to

30 STAY AT HOME activity resources based on Developmental Play in one group page, multiple languages and tagged by developmental levels.

2) Parent courses on the importance of play.

3) Child Care workers, clinicians and teachers introduction to play courses

4) Join our play community – subscribe at

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