Let’s PLAY through this! Tips on Coping with the Pandemic through Play

by Sara Reichstadt | On Our Minds – Columns by Mom Enough & Guests | Play

About the Author

Photo of Play ME Guest Blogger, Sara ReichstadtSara Reichstadt is the Education Coordinator for the seven NAEYC accredited Twin Cities Kinderberry Hill Child Development Centers. Sara earned her degree in Child Psychology from the University of Minnesota where she trained in the Shirley G. Moore Lab School. Since joining Kinderberry Hill in 1999, she has taught in infant, toddler and preschool classrooms and served in management positions. As Education Coordinator, Sara helps implement curriculum, offers classroom support and conducts teacher trainings. She is passionate about early education and helping children, teachers and families. She knows the importance of these things as a mom to two young children.



Well, 2020 has been full of surprises- that is for sure! Many families’ and children’s lives look completely different now than they did just one year ago. Changes can be stressful for adults, and our children are feeling the impact too.


Have you noticed your child’s tantrums becoming more frequent? Siblings arguing more than usual? Bedtime routines, potty training, and eating habits going out the window? Do your children seem to want to be held more often or maybe appear more withdrawn? These times have changed all of our lives, but perhaps the lives of our children most of all!


Girl crying on ground with grief


The majority of children’s learning happens through hands-on sensory exploration. How many times do you suppose we have asked children to “not touch” or “back up” over the past few months?  Children mirror our emotions and are regulated by the expressions of adults. Now, so many of our reassuring smiles are hidden behind masks. Children may be wondering why their friends are not at school anymore or why they no longer go themselves. Others may be confused as to why mom and dad are home all day. This confusion can result in behaviors that are less than desirable, but simply an expression of their stress over our current situation. The best way we can support them is with PLAY.


“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.

But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

                        ~Fred Rogers


Play is an opportunity for us all to escape, be joyful and creative. Research tells us how important this is in promoting problem solving, self-regulation and decision-making skills. These are the life skills we all need! Academic development actually comes more easily if these skills are firmly in place. So, even though our children may not be in school as regularly as we would like, we can rest assured knowing their brains are growing and developing new skills each time they engage in play.


Photo of father and son playing with a train set


Think about your child’s day. How much of it is devoted to play? For families working from home and challenged with balancing work and care, you might try creating fresh independent play opportunities from time to time. For example, gather a few wooden blocks and maybe some rocks or leaves. Place them on the floor and create a small “scene” with their favorite dinosaur (car, princess, puppy, etc.). Perch the toy right on top of the biggest rock and let your child discover this opportunity on their own. Think about something as simple as moving their dollhouse into the bottom of the coat closet and giving them a flashlight. Could you drape a sheet over the table and pile pillows and books beneath? Maybe glue two googly eyes on a piece of paper and leave a box of markers nearby. Just opening a low cupboard and pulling out a pot and pan can inspire exploration for little ones. Watch them get creative and enjoy! If possible, place this play where they can still see and check in with you. This will help extend play time. Don’t forget, children appreciate beauty! Would adding soft fabrics, pillows or rugs to this space make it more inviting? Lowering the lights or placing toys in sunshine? Adding soft music?


Children’s stress levels are lowered when they know what to expect, so take some time to consider your daily schedule. Whether you eat breakfast then snuggle in a chair or they wake up and turn on one of their favorite shows while you review emails, keep it the same every day. For children who are struggling with time away from you, picture schedules can be a nice tool. This helps them understand when you will connect again. Their schedule may show after they play with their toys, THEN you will eat lunch together. Knowing they have guaranteed time with you will lower their stress and help them better enjoy independent time. The same is true for children who are still attending school. Keep your home routine as consistent as possible. Though school schedules are generally consistent, home is where children unwind and process the day. Make sure their mornings start the same each day and they can count on connecting with you in the evening.


Photo of children playing with pots on their heads


Schedule playtime! Be purposeful about incorporating this into each day. Even small amounts of play will help your child work through some of the stress they may be feeling. Perhaps after lunch you play soccer in the backyard for 15 minutes. Or you take time to dance to their favorite song before snack. Maybe 20 minutes of Legos before bed is all it takes to get back to enjoying a full night’s sleep! Look at your schedule and see where you can work in small bits of intentional play. Keep this schedule consistent, so they can count on joyful time with you.


Sneak in light-hearted connection during our regular duties of the day. Sharks have a million teeth! What would happen if you both turned into sharks as soon as the toothpaste hit the brush? Play ‘this little piggy’ when putting on socks and shoes. Invite your child to get on the “Express Train” when driving to school. Don’t forget to ask them for their ticket and where they are going! Be sure to sound the train horn upon departure and arrival. Write ‘I Love You’ on their back with your finger when tucking them into bed and don’t forget to kiss teddy bear goodnight too!


Some children will seem to be regressing or may need more physical touch during this time. They may ask to sleep in your bed, read old baby books, ask for their pacifier, or want to be rocked to sleep. It is ok for us to give them a little extra time and touch right now. Maybe you can rock with the lights down for a few minutes before putting them to bed. Reading old favorite books can be very familiar and predictable for children (something we may all be craving right now). Be patient with potty training or bedwetting slide backs. This too shall pass! The more we can offer support and connection, while avoiding unnecessary stress, the sooner our children can begin to feel settled again.


Photo of mom comforting her child


Finally, on those treasured weekends or days off, when we hopefully have a little more time for our families. . . PLAY! Let your child take the lead. Follow their interests and be ready for their surprises. You may plan on taking them to the park to play on the swings, only to realize they just want to kick and toss the leaves. This is what unstructured, joyful play is all about. Be present. Make eye-contact. Hold their hand and laugh together. Play is not only good for children, we could all probably use a little more of it these days!


Photo of child who plays in leaves




UNLEASHING THE INSTINCT TO PLAY: PATHWAYS TO JOY, COMPETENCE AND CREATIVITY IN PRETEND PLAY. Psychologist Peter Gray had spent years studying the biological foundations of emotions in rats and other mammals. But when his 9-year-old son had an angry outburst in the principal’s office, Peter was moved to tears and soon found himself shifting his research focus to studying education from a biological perspective. Peter’s conclusions about what is missing from children’s lives in terms of pretend play and exploration without adult direction are addressed in a powerful way in his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life. Whatever the age of your children, Peter’s conversation with Marti & Erin will lead you to careful reflection on how to support your children’s success and happiness.


THE BENEFITS OF ROUGH AND TUMBLE PLAY: A CONVERSATION WITH EDUCATOR MIKE HUBER ABOUT ROUGHHOUSING. Early childhood educator Mike Huber understands how valuable rough and tumble play is to children’s learning and development. Mike joins Marti & Erin in this lively discussion of this often overlooked aspect of children’s experience.


Photo of Mom Enough Co-Hosts, Dr. Erin Erickson & Dr. Marti EricksonDr. Erin Erickson & Dr. Marti Erickson are here to support you during the pandemic, and always. If there is a topic that you would like us to address, send us a note and we will do our best to get you the information you need. Mom Enough® focuses on evidence-based information for parents and people who care for children and families. Click here to sign up for our newsletter and stay up-to-date with our latest podcasts and articles.



For more information from Mom Enough’s supporting partner, Kinderberry Hill: 

All of Kinderberry Hill’s childcare and education centers are still open and following guidelines to keep children and their families safe during the pandemic. Kinderberry Hill also has great resources on their website…check out their suggestion to paint with water!

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