A letter to the education secretary expresses concern about the impact of the lockdown on children.
The letter urges the government to prioritise play and socialising with friends over formal lessons and academic progress when schools in England reopen. The panel of experts, which represents five UK universities, says it is “extremely concerned” about the impact of the lockdown and more than six weeks without face-to-face play with peers on child mental health.
It is feared that children will be suffering from loneliness and isolation. One study cited in the letter found that children who experienced quarantine or social isolation in previous pandemics were five times more likely to need mental health interventions than those who did not.
The panel is also calling for children to be allowed to play with their peers without social distancing as soon as it is safe to do so, based on a “risk-benefit approach”, recognising the benefits while ensuring children are not exposed to unnecessary risk.
Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, said: “Returning to school after a long period at home will be challenging for lots of children. It will be especially challenging if they are expected to remain two metres away from their friends. We ask that, once it is safe to do so, the loosening of lockdown is done in a way that allows children to play with their peers, without social distancing, as soon as possible. This may mean that close play is only permitted in pairs or small groups or within social bubbles that allow repeated mixing with a small number of contacts.”
The panel recommends that schools should be given the necessary resources and guidance on how to support children’s emotional wellbeing as schools reopen and that “play should be a priority during this time, rather than academic progress”.
Dr Jenny Gibson, senior lecturer in psychology and education at the University of Cambridge, added: “It’s easy to dismiss play as unimportant, but for children, playing with friends and classmates has a very significant impact on their social development. Critically, it is an important way of working through emotions and will therefore be one of the principal ways in which they cope with the isolating effects of the lockdown.”