Prof Helen Dodd: The importance of play for children’s social and emotional wellbeing

Professor Helen Dodd

Professor in Child Psychology, University of Reading


Schools do so much more than deliver formal education. At school children learn to interact, negotiate, play and socialise with a broad range of children.1 From greeting each other as they arrive at school in the morning, to sitting down to eat lunch together, to playing outside during breaktimes, schools provide children with rich social and emotional learning experiences; for some children, break time at school is their only opportunity for socialising with other children.1

For the majority of UK children and adolescents, the Covid-19 restrictions will mean six months away from school. This has wide-reaching implications in terms of their formal education but the consequences are broader; by being kept out of school our children and adolescents are being denied access to the host of the additional social and emotional learning opportunities that school offers.

Play with peers is crucially important for children of all ages. Peer relationships are unique because they are voluntary and egalitarian; they require negotiation and compromise.2 Because of this, play with peers promotes healthy emotion regulation, social skill development, a sense of identity and it brings feelings of ‘social joy’.3 Without the opportunity to play closely with peers, children can feel lonely and socially isolated, which is linked to short- and long-term mental health problems.4

For social and emotional wellbeing, children need opportunity to engage in all types of play, including physical outdoor play and play with their peers, both of which have been and, to some extent, continue to be restricted. This restriction is likely to felt particularly acutely by children without siblings who are close in age and by children who don’t have easy access to outdoor space, exacerbating existing inequalities.

We don’t yet know what impact this period of relative social isolation and continued social distancing will have on the social and emotional wellbeing of the next generation but we must prioritise their needs in decision making. It is vital that all children can return to school full time in September, to resume their formal education and to reap the benefits of the rich social and emotional learning opportunities that school offers.

When children do return to school, they will need time and space to reconnect with their peers through play. This must not be neglected in favour of ‘catching up’. Play is beneficial at times of crisis and adversity, it can help children manage feelings of stress, anxiety and trauma,5,6 it provides stability, a sense of normality, and positive emotions. Only when children’s social and emotional needs are met will they be ready to resume their formal education effectively.


6th July 2020

[Picture credit:  Learning Through Landscapes.]