Why children need a Summer of Play

29 Jun 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 29 Jun 2021

Play is in our nature – and it’s there for a reason. Scope speaks with PlayBoard NI CEO Jacqueline O’Loughlin about how children and young people need more support to explore themselves and the world around them.


Play is learning, it is development, it is about investigating your place in society and the world at large – and growing into that place, finding your feet, and improving your understanding of every single thing around you.

It is also about exercise, and both physical and mental health. Play is at the heart of how human beings develop themselves. Play is vital.

Children and young people in Northern Ireland are playing less and less.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact but the issue is broader and more long-term. One piece of research from 2016 found that NI children spend less time in physically active play than all their European peers.

Jacqueline O’Loughlin, CEO of PlayBoard NI, told Scope: “When people talk about play, they think about fun and children having a good time. But play is much deeper than that, it’s an evolutionary process.

“The young of every species, particularly mammals, play. That’s how we learn, make sense of the world, and grow and develop. Play is an intrinsic part of childhood. Children are intrinsically motivated to play.

“Watch a newborn child, and how they interact with their mother’s face. The mother is the first playground. Learning is play based. Play is how we learn to resolve conflicts, and how we manage risk. So play is fun, no doubt about it, but it’s so much more than that.”

The benefits of play cut across almost all aspects of people’s development. It helps us socially, intellectually, creatively, emotionally, culturally and physically.

Which is why PlayBoard NI has joined with similar organisations around the UK in calling for 2021 to enjoy a Summer of Play.

Summer of Play

Several studies have taken place during the pandemic to measure its impact on children and, in particular, their play.

PlayBoard NI is behind a couple of such reports – including a November 2020 paper based on feedback from children and young people themselves, and research from earlier this month focused on early years – while Ms O’Loughlin also cites similar studies from organisations like Barnardo’s.

“They all say pretty much the same thing,” she said - that children’s levels of play have been curtailed, that this will hamper their development, and that the consequences could be long-term.

She told Scope that paediatricians are noting an increase in the number of children presenting with mental health problems – and that this is happening to younger children than was previously the case.

That is part of the reason behind the campaign for a Summer of Play.

For over 30 years, PlayBoard and other organisations have run a Day of Play each summer, to raise awareness of the importance of play and try and help people – parents, people who work with children, and more – to understand the importance of play.

This year, because Covid-19 has exacerbated issues, that has become a summer-long campaign (although the Day of Play is still in place, pencilled in for August 4).

These campaigns part of a longer-term process. Organisations like PlayBoard NI want play – and its importance in human development – to be properly understood.

“Even before Covid the whole issue of play required attention. There were live concerns about children’s mobility, about tech, and children spending more time in sedentary activities. Around 27% of children in P1 are either overweight or obese.”

The overweight/obesity figure is interesting. It provides a strong indication that children are not playing enough.

However, the stat itself – if not properly considered – might almost mask the breadth of the issue. Play is not just about physical wellness, it is about a child’s holistic development. Children who do not play enough are missing out in myriad ways.

Stormont summer

The Assembly’s record on play is mixed. For instance, support for the Summer of Play is maybe stronger in England and Wales (both of which have branded it as Summer of Fun, to prevent people from assuming it is entirely sports based), while in Scotland the government has pledged £20m support for summer activities.

In Northern Ireland, things are perhaps more muted. The (now former) Education Minister Peter Weir tabled £5m for schools wanting to put on a summer scheme (other support, such as support for childcare activites, is also available for NI parents).

However, the Executive has perhaps been less voluble in its support for play, compared with other parts of the UK.

Ms O’Loughlin told Scope that summer schemes can do a lot of good but the model has some drawbacks.

“I’ve a small concern that what they are offering may not be a summer play, it may be more like lessons. The staff running these things are not play workers, they are educationalists. That could mean they have a lot of structured activity, which is not quite the same thing as play. Play is an intrinsic aspect of childhood. But once you tell someone to do something it’s not quite the same thing.

“Another issue is how this system will affect community groups who want to do their own summer schemes but do not have any additional funding.

“If parents have the choice to pay to send their child to summer scheme or opt for a free service, they will use the free service. A lot of community groups who are depending on children coming to them could be disadvantaged.”

Long play

The NI Assembly produced its first draft play policy in 2006. This received Executive sign off in 2009. In 2011, a strategy was published but did not receive financial backing.

Now play has been subsumed within the broader Children and Young People’s Strategy. Ms O’Loughlin says this is the correct place for it – given the breadth of ways in which play feeds into a child’s development – but says it still needs a higher billing.

However, she says that policymakers’ appreciation of play is at least moving in the right direction, both in the very long term and even more recently, such as within the Department of Education’s response to the pandemic, or with the well-received Play Matters project.

Ms O’Loughlin said: “Guidance was issued to schools last August around educational restart. This included no reference to play. We had provided some input during the creation of that guidance and I was disappointed to see play was not included.

“However, the more recent guidance on a restart included lots about play. Moreover, the recent report on educational underachievement – A Fair Start – also highlighted the importance of play.”

She raised concerns that educationalists and policymakers will rush to get children back into classrooms – with more homework and longer school days – rather than efforts being made to look after children and create the best-possible environments for their broader development and wellbeing (such as with longer breaks at school, and more focus on play as a core aspect of development).

However, calling herself an eternal optimist, she says the pandemic may have done play a favour. Ms O’Loughlin feels policymakers now have a greater understanding of what play is and why it is important than they did in March 2020 and, long-term, this could be a positive.

Her vision is for a society that makes space and time for play a key part of its future development. This cuts across everything from schools, to local built environment, even to public attitudes.

People can get haughty when they see a group of 13-year-olds standing on a street corner. But most of the time they are just doing what comes naturally.

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