Much has been written about the behavioral difficulties children across the world are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has shown that the lockdowns, social isolation, and changes in daily routines have affected adults’ mental health and parenting negatively, and symptoms of stress seen in children include nervousness, agitation, aggression, separation fears, and clingy behavior (see Cohen & Bamberger, 2021). Reduced opportunities for both indoor and outdoor play activities have also been linked to mental health difficulties in children in some cultures.
In times of adversity, children should be given space to use different forms of play as a coping mechanism to explore their emotions and adapt to their current situation. In this article, we draw on the findings of three qualitative studies conducted in various countries with different levels of economic development to demonstrate how children use play to cope with challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Play serves a protective function even in the most difficult of circumstances.”
Models of adversity and resilience outline the multisystem influences on how families and children respond to difficult experiences (e.g., war, statelessness, poverty, natural disasters) across cultures. At the heart of resilience is the human capability to face, adapt to, and gather strength from adversity. One way children demonstrate resilience is through playful activities.
Play serves a protective function even in the most difficult circumstances, unmasks the psychosocial difficulties (e.g., anxiety, depression, emotional distress) children may encounter, and highlights the adaptive qualities they use to cope with adversities. Play permits children to express emotional connectedness, a perspective that aligns well with the contention that play is key to emotional survival.
At different stages of the ongoing COVID–19 pandemic, researchers examined how children used playful activities to cope with social isolation and school closures, and to gain an understanding of the virus itself. An examination of the play of Israeli children during the early stages of the pandemic revealed an increase in play interactions with siblings and parents, and marked changes in the nature and themes of sociodramatic play (i.e., acting out imaginary stories and situations; Cohen & Bamberger, 2021).
Sociodramatic themes reflected attempts to cope with fear of the virus through imaginary protection, seeking refuge from COVID-19, and beating it. Children turned to humor and displayed acts of moral concern for others in the family. According to parents, children grew in self-care, language, and motor skills.
In India, amid tight lockdowns, parents from low-income backgrounds in rural and peri-urban areas reported that they noticed few changes in their children’s play activities (Chaudhary, Kapoor, & Pillai, 2021). In urban settings, confinement prompted children to find new play spaces (e.g., under stairways, in the corner of a terrace) and to venture to street corners to play, often evading the scrutiny of authorities. Solitary and parallel play increased and interest in outdoor play rose. With dramatic increases in technology use, children in more well-off families turned to online games. Children were creative in modifying existing games by inserting themes they invented. As the pandemic progressed into the second year, parents noticed that their children continued to play in diverse ways and that they had become more considerate of others.
As in Israel and India, in neighborhoods of Toronto, Canada, photographs of children’s outdoor play demonstrated a tremendous sense of hope (Brownell, 2022). By participating in animal scavenger hunts for Teddy Bears in windows, locating stuffed animals hidden in trees, playing “I spy” games, and designing bunny trails, children learned to play with anonymous others on their street and around the block.
“Children continue to turn to play activities, either alone or with others, to navigate their way through the pandemic.”
Chalk sketches on sidewalks (e.g., hopscotch, galaxies, UFOs, underwater creatures, blue skies, grassy knolls, flowers) served to transport people to experiences beyond the immediate present. “Chalk talk” extolled hope (“you can do it,” “you are not alone,” “it will pass”) and prompted others to be safe (“stay six feet apart,” “no Halloween candy due to COVID”). These outdoor activities were not synchronous in that specific groups of children were involved. During a pandemic, they reflect children’s desire to invite others to play in their absence and offer hope to those in their neighborhood.
Amid daily challenges — online education, home schooling, and anxieties about the COVID–19 pandemic — these accounts indicate that children used various adaptive strategies to invent play spaces and engage in different play activities. In doing so, much emphasis was placed on different modes of play and children’s cognitive and social skills development.
As they do when dealing with other difficult circumstances, children continue to turn to play activities, either alone or with others, to navigate their way through the pandemic. At the bottom of it all, play permits us to express our humanity, examine our vulnerabilities, and extend social and moral concern for others in a global world community.