Paediatricians call for Covid rules to ease so children can play

Doctors say youngsters need to have contact with others in order to socialise normally

Children enjoying their local playground during the Covid pandemic.
Children enjoying their local playground during the Covid pandemic. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
Children enjoying their local playground during the Covid pandemic. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

First published on Sun 14 Feb 2021 06.00 EST

Ten-year-old Sumeya has a massive grin on her face as she leaps off the basket swing in Archbishop’s Park, south London, just over the Thames from Westminster. “I love it here,” she says. “I love the swing, but it’s better if you have other kids, then you can play hide and seek.”

After a row over whether guidance for children and play is “overzealous” last week, No 10 was forced to confirm that all children can use playgrounds, not just those without gardens. But it added: “Parents who take their children to a playground to exercise must not socialise and must stay 2 metres from anyone not in their household, although we recognise this is not always possible for children.”

Doctors and public health experts have urged the government to relax these restrictions on play, warning that children are failing to “thrive and grow” without social interaction.

“Children need children,” said Sunil Bhopal, a paediatrician and lecturer in child health in Newcastle. “Is stopping them playing together really necessary to control this pandemic? Because I really care about controlling the pandemic, but the government hasn’t given us a good reason why children are not allowed to play together outside.”

He said children were not developing properly without socialisation. “We are seeing sadness and distress. If we want children to grow, develop and thrive they have to be able to play and … interact with each other.”

Rules differ across the UK. The Scottish government has protected the right of children to outdoor play in its Covid guidance, allowing up to 13 under-12s to be accompanied by two adults outside.

“It’s wonderful here,” said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, who sits on the Scottish Covid advisory committees. “Today, children are playing football, tennis, sledding in groups. If you put rules in place you have to give leeway where we can and we know kids transmit less. We have seen no clusters in children and our numbers are coming down.”

In Archbishop’s Park, parents who live in nearby flats shiver in the cold while their children leap on to swings and hang off climbing frames. Last week, campaigners raised the issue of two boys playing in nearby Waterloo who were told to go home by police while building a snowman. Parents here say many families have become fearful of being outside.

“People aren’t clear about whether play is even allowed,” said Sarah Simpson, mother of Theo. “I do bring mine out to play but families I know aren’t coming out. I’m all for protecting the vulnerable but we are going into the second year now and with schools closed children need real play – that is, play with other children.”

Another mother, who did not wish to be identified, said: “They need it so much. My own five-year-old has started scratching her face since being out of school. She shouts at me ‘I’m so angry, nobody likes me, I don’t see my friends.’”

Hannah White has three children and uses the park daily. “It is inherent in the act of taking a child to play that you would ideally want them to have other children to play with. Yesterday my three-year-old said to me, ‘can I touch my friend?’ It’s sad, this is how this generation is growing up.”

Just behind the park is the Evelina London children’s hospital. Michael Absoud, a consultant there in children’s neurodisability, is concerned about the loss of socialisation for children with special needs.

“These children are already vulnerable, the loss of social play is really a worry. It’s been a year now, that’s significant in a six-year-old’s life. Play is important for the developing brain, it’s how children learn, I would prescribe play if I could.

Absoud wants play to be at the heart of the recovery agenda as the country moves out of lockdown.

“Everyone wants to follow the rules so let’s make it clear how they can play. We as paediatricians would like to see a national agenda for play, let’s use it to start the healing.”

At the park. Sumeya has no doubt that she should be outside playing. “It’s our right to play,” she said firmly, before she runs off back to the swing.