Play in the time of coronavirus

Authors: Tim Gill and Penny Wilson

[Updated 25 April 2020 and on previous dates, with new links to other posts, ideas and reflections, plus a few additions (in italic) and deletions (in strikethrough text) to reflect the 23 March 2020 address to the nation from the UK Prime Minister, and subsequent official guidance for England.]

The lives of parents and caregivers around the world are being turned upside down. But amidst all the fear, stress and uncertainty, children of all ages still want – and need – to play.

This post shares some thoughts and ideas on supporting children’s play in these challenging times, bearing in mind that they may need to be indoors, or socially distancing themselves following official guidance if they are outside.

Photo of a painted rock

Photo: Wikipedia (creative commons licence)

Some ideas came via twitter. Some are ours, inspired by playwork. So we want to say a few words about play and playwork.

For children, play is a bit like breathing. They do it all the time, mostly without thinking about it, and mostly without the rest of us paying too much attention. But playing somehow helps to keeps children alive and sane (mostly, almost – it’s complicated).

Crucially, playing gives children a taste of being in control, of having some agency in their everyday lives. Playing gives them space and time to reconcile themselves to – and make sense of – an uncertain world.

On top of this, through playing, children are subconsciously exploring their own powerful emotional responses to what is happening around them. This is why coronavirus chase games are springing up in schoolyards and playgrounds everywhere.

Evening Standard coronavirus playground game screengrab

Playworkers take children’s play really seriously. Just as seriously as children do themselves. Which is – sometimes – not seriously at all.

Playworkers favour open-ended, evolving activities, where children get a say in how things go (and maybe get to change things) and where they get to decide what’s fair or unfair, and what’s safe or unsafe (within reason).

This is because playworkers believe that children are – or can be – a lot more competent, responsible and resilient than other people think. With what’s happening right now, this feels important.

The lists below give some ideas. Apart from liking them all, we picked them for three reasons. First, they should be suitable for different numbers of players (children and/or adults), and for a wide range of ages (because teens play too, even if they don’t use that word). Second, they can work while following guidance about social distancing. And third, they can work in indoor or confined contexts such as domestic gardens, as well as local parks or nearby green space.

Please, please, please check and follow your country’s official current advice on hygiene, social contact, travel etc. Here’s the general guidance for England. This is doubly important because things are changing fast (and are different in different parts of the world).

Update 19 March 2020: in this clip from a BBC News interview on 19 March, the Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty is asked about playing outside – for example kicking a football around in a park with friends. He says: “the key thing is to avoid close social contact. But if it’s in the open air and people are keeping their distance, then we would certainly want people to continue to enjoy themselves.”

Open-ended play activities

  • Den-building in nearby green space, or in the home or garden (could go on for weeks)
  • Chalking on the pavement
  • Junk modelling (eg the infinite possibilities of the cardboard box)
  • Dressing up
  • Preparing and putting on shows
  • Weird or reworked sports (one-legged table tennis, blindfold cricket, indoor boules)
  • Silly games where the rules can be changed at any time, by anyone, but the change has to be made before the next move is made
  • Inspiration from nature and the elements: bug hunts, cloud watching
Photo of cloud by Juliet Robertson

Photo: Juliet Robertson

Traditional outdoor and indoor games (because they matter)

  • See this online spreadsheet from @amandasays on twitter for lots of ideas
  • Inventing your own rules for traditional board games
  • Inventing your own games, or making boards and cards for existing games


  • Put together a grab-bag of outdoor play props (a bit like this parent did – although obviously think about how this ensure that whatever you do fits with official social distancing and other guidance).

Armour made of cardboard and duct tape

  • Get children involved in deciding, organising and overseeing their play.
  • Look out online for ideas. (We liked this one.) Clearly this is a fast-moving situation. We will try to update this post to reflect this. Also, here are some helpful twitter hashtags (pick and choose, as always): #playathome#coronaplay, #playmatters
  • [Update 23 March 2020 and ongoing: new links]:
    • Snappy set of 10 single-page information sheets for caregivers on play in times of crisis, written by seasoned playwork writer and advocate Theresa Casey and published by the International Play Association.
    • Handy tailor-made lists of practical ideas from Play Wales and PlayBoard Northern Ireland, and from Play Scotland on messy play (other ideas also available on their site, but do review these for the current situation).
    • Learning through Landscapes Facebook page shares ideas on outdoor learning and play for parents.
    • This thoughtful post from playwork consultants Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay – aka Ludicology – goes into more detail about the epidemic and what it might mean for children, parents/caregivers and playworkers.
    • This post from playwork globetrotters Pop Up Adventure Play has some inspiring ideas and reflections.
    • This snappy, readable post for parents from my longtime kindred spirit Lenore Skenazy – now President of the US NGO Let Grow – chimes with much of what we have said.
    • You may want to check out these ideas from the Scouts, and also their twitter hashtag #thegreatindoors.
    • The Bernard van Leer Foundation is inviting and sharing ideas relevant to infants, babies, toddlers and their parents/caregivers – in different languages – and promoting the twitter hashtag #toddlinginside.
  • Take a balanced, sympathetic approach to screen time. Children’s digital lives are important to them (just like for adults) and a big part of their social life. They often use tech in highly creative, playful ways. Even if you are worried about this, coming up with engaging alternatives is more likely to work out well for everyone than bans or heavy restrictions.
  • Take all of this as suggestions, not advice. Even though our days as parents of young children are behind us both, we remember what it’s like to be lectured or patronised.
  • Keep it fun and light-hearted for everyone (adults and children).

Further thoughts

Try to follow children’s lead, and stay in touch with their levels of interest and engagement. Don’t be afraid to step back and watch, and let them get on with it. In fact, being able to take a back seat or even dip out altogether can be a win-win.

This may go against the grain of ‘keeping children occupied’ with structured activities, learning support etc. As outdoor learning expert and ex head teacher Juliet Robertson said on twitter, “it requires a different way of thinking and being as a family.” However, we are not saying it is ‘free play or the highway’. There is time and space for both. [Update 31 March: this article that I wrote with Dr Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading, explores how to get the balance right in supporting children’s learning and play at home.]

A final thought on some of the wider challenges facing families preparing for long periods of time at home together. Think about involving children in household tasks like cooking and cleaning – baking a loaf of bread, preparing a meal or cleaning the bathroom. Of course this is not free play. But it can be playful and engaging.

For example, many children will jump at the chance to plan and cook a meal. Even more so if they are invited to imagine that they are running a restaurant.

A playful approach to domestic tasks could really help in sharing the burden of holding things together, building family spirit, learning new skills, and filling up time.

We send everyone the very best of luck, good wishes and playful moments in these turbulent times. Please share your thoughts and ideas, either as a comment (which is nice, because more people will get to see it when they visit this page over the weeks and months) or on Facebook or twitter.

About Tim
Tim is an independent researcher, consultant and one-time volunteer playworker. He was director of the Children’s Play Council (now Play England) between 1997 and 2004. His work on risk and child-friendly urban planning has a global profile. More here. Twitter: @timrgill.

About Penny
Penny is a playworker. She talks, writes and draws about play, as well as running PlayKX  with Assemble Studio. For several years she travelled in the USA helping people find ways to reintroduce play into the lives of children and communities. She wrote the Playwork Primer as part of this project. More here.  Twitter: @pennywilson.

Acknowledgements and sources
Thanks to Juliet Robertson, Tassy Thompson, Amanda Ptolemey, and everyone else who shared and contributed via twitter.


14 responses to “Play in the time of coronavirus

  1. Thanks Penny and Tim. We’re in the soup for sure – these ideas help to make it a more palatable recipe. Cheers from Nova Scotia.

  2. Love it Tim and Penny xx

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  4. Hi Tim

    Great post about play. Can you join the Peaceful Schools Movement Facebook Group please and post this whole article on there – if that’s possible?

    That would be so helpful.

    Much love Anna

    On Wed, 18 Mar 2020 at 17:39, Rethinking Childhood wrote:

    > Tim Gill posted: “Authors: Tim Gill and Penny Wilson The lives of parents > and caregivers around the world are being turned upside down. But amidst > all the fear, stress and uncertainty, children of all ages will want – and > need – to play. This post shares some thoughts an” >

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