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COVID-19 and the future of play

By: Brittany Ann Stinson

The COVID-19 crisis is going to fundamentally change the ways in which we go about living and exploring the world for years to come. These effects will be especially disruptive until advanced therapeutics and a vaccine can reach the market. Children may not be as physically vulnerable to COVID-19 as other demographics, but this doesn’t negate the disruption that it has had upon their day to day. With school closures in place, kids aren’t getting nearly the amount of socialization and playtime with others that they were before. Play activities are an important arena for social and motor skill development, along with hand-eye coordination, sharing, creativity, conflict-resolution skills and much more.

So what happens when schools are closed and going back to home where parents have differing capacities to play with their children? And it is likely that some children aren’t old enough to understand the nature of the pandemic and why they’ve suddenly been pulled apart from their school routine and friends. This can cause feelings of anger and confusion, stressors that exacerbate the difficulty of their experiences.

Play has more of an important role than parents may first think. Research at Washington State University investigating the purpose of play concludes that its goal is to build “social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways” –termed “pro-social brains” (Hamilton, 2014). With their research conducted in rats they notice lasting changes in the portions of the brain devoted to processing social interaction and thinking.In 1200 genes measured, they tracked significant changes in approximately ⅓ of them due to just half an hour of play (Burgdorf, 2011). These changes involve switching certain genes on or off. Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, notes that play experience alters the connections between neurons at the front of the brain says. These rat studies do not necessarily imply that all of these changes will apply in humans, but Pellis does note that the rules of play behavior are similar across rats, monkeys, and humans.

One study notes that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade is a child’s social skills in the third grade (Caprara, 2000). Specifically, they conducted a longitudinal study following children for five years–into early adolescence. The goal was to look at the contributions of “early prosocial behavior” to children’s development in both the academic and social spheres. They tested the contribution of aggressive behaviors as well. Behaviors defined as prosocial included cooperativeness, helping, sharing, and consoling. Antisocial behaviors included predispositions to verbena and physical aggression. Prosocialness had significant positive impacts on later academic achievement, but aggression had no significant effect on this outcome. Surprisingly, early academic achievement showed no strong evidence of contribution to later academic achievement after controlling for “prosocialnesss”.

The earlier that children are in developmental stages, the more likely they are to be set back by this crisis. likely So how do we mitigate the impacts of these missed opportunities for socialization?

Because physical interaction has been put on hold does not mean that social interaction has to. However, the ability to continue on with these social interactions is largely dependent upon having parents at home and having reliable internet access, which isn’t true for every household.How do we ensure that the children of essential workers are accessing these social and educational resources at this time? Parents of high-SES families are more likely to have jobs that allow them to work remotely, but remote work isn’t possible for everyone at this time.

Play is an important part of cognitive and social development, as children are removed from an environment where much play and social interaction takes place, it is essential to find supplements so that kids don’t miss out on months of development. The impacts of this shift are likely to hit children of essential workers the hardest, since their work obligations prevent them from staying at home and partaking in play and other stimulating activities with their children. This underscores the importance of prioritizing childcare for the children of essential workers in ensuring that the already existing gaps do not widen.

Work Cited

1. Burgdorf J, Panksepp J, Moskal JR. Frequency-modulated 50kHz ultrasonic vocalizations: a tool for uncovering the molecular substrates of positive affect. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2011;35(9):1831-1836. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.11.011

2. Larson K, Russ SA, Nelson BB, Olson LM, Halfon N. Cognitive ability at kindergarten entry and socioeconomic status. Pediatrics. 2015;135(2):e440-e448. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-0434

3. Hamilton J. Scientists say child’s play helps build a better brain. Published August 6, 2014. Accessed May 18, 2020.

4. Caprara GV, Barbaranelli C, Pastorelli C, Bandura A, Zimbardo PG. Prosocial foundations of children’s academic achievement. Psychol Sci. 2000;11(4):302-306. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00260


Brittany is a senior at Stanford University studying Human Biology. She cares about how socio economic disparities influence barriers to health and well-being.