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Playing with Children during COVID-19 Lockdown

Kerri Ann Alexander: Counselling Psychologist and Play Therapy Supervisor


Since the official announcement of lockdown here in South Africa, and globally, social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook have exploded with comedic tweets, posts and memes about how parents are going to survive extended periods of time with their little ones as we all try to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a mother myself, I have received countless hilarious messages from other moms explaining how they are juggling their children, housework, and office-work at this time. Behind the light-hearted jokes and pleas for relief, are a group of parents and families who may really be struggling. Not only is there very real anxiety about the state of our world, but additional work pressures, financial setbacks and disrupted routines are all a recipe for tension and behavioural flare-ups at home.

However, there ARE simple ways for us to make this time meaningful and manageable with our children: We can play with them.


Play is the primary means that children connect and communicate. Children learn to play before they learn to walk or talk; and as such, it is a very natural thing for them to do. Playing is valuable for social bonding, releasing tension, expressing and reflecting on internal thoughts and feelings. Here I’m defining play as any shared face-to-face (or full-body) activity that is generally focused, fun, creative, and for the sole motivation of enjoyment (although learning and conversation are wonderful extras!). For the purpose of this article I’m side-lining any play involving screens and special equipment, as these can sometimes make play feel complicated for parents. However, here is a link for a great article on how to use screen-time well over the COVID-19 period: http://theconversation.com/coronavirus-5-tips-for-navigating-childrens-screen-time-during-social-distancing-134445.


For now, here are some ideas of how to go back to basic play with your children:

  1. The floor is lava!” is a crowd favourite, especially if everyone in the family gets involved in trying to find ways to move around the house without touching the floor. Have a few safe zones (to give everyone a break from time to time) or make some stilts with tin-cans and string (https://www.playfullearning.net/resource/diy-tin-can-stilts/) to make getting from the lounge to the bathroom possible without accidents.

  2. Build blanket forts and indoor tents out of household linen, pillows and furniture. Get some ideas like these: https://redtri.com/fantastic-indoor-forts-for-kids/

Why not make the fort a special place for dinner or family boardgames night?.

  1. You don’t have boardgames? Why not return to pencil and paper games, like noughts-and-crosses, hangman, battleship, general knowledge or word-searches. Here’s more: https://www.playworks.org/resource/fun-paper-and-pencil-games-to-play/

  2. For very energetic little ones, devise an obstacle course (inside or outside) and do a series of time trials.

  3. Oldies (but goodies) also include hide-and-seek, touchers, stuck-in-the-mud, stalk-the-lantern or pass-the-parcel.

  4. Perhaps you need 30 minutes to do a zoom call, have a cup of uninterrupted tea or make dinner; then why not write up a list of items and send your children out on a scavenger hunt. Some printable ones are included here: https://buggyandbuddy.com/30-free-printable-scavenger-hunts-for-kids/

  5. Or let your children make YOU dinner (or breakfast or lunch). Baking and cooking together can be creative and fun. Here’s 21 recipes you may want to try: https://tasty.co/article/melissaharrison/cooking-with-kids

  6. Use recyclable materials (newspaper, carboard boxes, empty bottles, old magazines etc.) to do some creative crafts, like a newspaper-outfit fashion show, carboard cars, or many more seen here: https://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2014/04/recycled-art-project-for-kids-2.html

  7. Or even make your own musical instruments for your family band, and enjoy a “jam-session” where you play and sing along to the songs you’re all loving right now.

  8. Perhaps choose one of those songs and develop a dance routine to it. This is not only fun, but brain and body exercise!

Whichever of the above you choose to engage in, it is important to hold in mind that every time you play with your child it is an opportunity to facilitate emotional expression and to encourage healthy exploration of your child’s internal world. At a time like this, during a global pandemic, when your children are undoubtably aware to some extent of the anxiety in their worlds, making time for relaxed talking about feelings and thoughts is extremely valuable. When playing games with your children try to remember the following:


  1. Always show an interest not just in what they are DOING, but ask how they are FEELING as well. Some games can even focus on feelings. For example: Take some balloons and write feeling words over a few of them. Allow children to jump on the balloons to pop them, but before they do, ask them to tell you a time they felt the feeling written on the balloon.

  2. If your child cannot think of the words for how they are feeling, try help them name the feeling by sharing a variety of emotional words with them (Or even talking about what YOU are feeling in the game). More emotion games and activities can be found at: https://www.powerfulmothering.com/30-games-activities-and-printables-to-teach-emotions-to-young-kids/

  3. Have a non-judgemental and curious attitude when your children talk to you about their thoughts or feelings. Show them that you are trying to understand them deeply by rephrasing what they tell you in your own words.

  4. Ask open-ended questions.

  5. Always empathize, even if it may not make rational sense to you as the parent.

  6. Don’t force things. Children have a knack for telling if you’re being a bit fake, so try keep things natural.

If you are really having a hard time, and feel that you, your child or your family as a whole need therapeutic support, please feel free to contact the Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre (JPCCC).

#MentalhealthCOVID19

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