Soft toys wearing face masks, drawings of hand sanitiser and secret dens under tables: a new academic study of children’s play during the pandemic has revealed the comforts and the traumas of the past two years.
The research, conducted by University College London and Sheffield University, demonstrates how the young have attempted to cope with, and even to control, the changed world around them.
“We were amazed by the variety of play,” UCL’s Prof John Potter told the Observer. “We’ve been able to compare the creative things children did during previous national crises, such as the Spanish flu pandemic and the second world war. Many enduring traditional children’s games date from those moments.”
The gathered findings, including photographs and art, poetry and videos that were submitted from all over the world to the Play Observatory website, are now to become part of an exhibition curated by Young Victoria and Albert, the new incarnation of London’s former Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The exhibition will open online on 23 March, the two-year anniversary of the first lockdown, and the physical exhibits are expected to move to the new museum site in 2023.
“We saw a strong desire from children to control their own spaces, with a huge amount of den-building. Perhaps this is unexpected when children were already being kept inside in limited spaces, but a den under a blanket or a dining table can give a greater feeling of security and power over their own environment.”
Other submissions include a seven-year-old’s “pretend virus-free hairdressers” and Barbie dolls participating in Joe Wicks’s online exercise class. Rituals of hand-sanitising and hand-washing also became formalised into songs and games.
There was clear evidence that the first lockdown, which took place in spring, had been easier for most children. “Going outdoors allowed children to explore their neighbourhood in new ways. The second lockdown was worse, but children showed a great level of ingenuity,” Potter said.
Play specialists from Great Ormond Street hospital advised on the project. “Not every child had such a good play experience, of course,” said Potter. “We should not forget that some were overwhelmed by anxiety and felt very restricted.”
Submitted photographs feature chalked “Keep out” signs on the pavement and images of a virtual Minecraft funeral a child created when he was unable to attend in person. There are also pictures of toddlers Covid-testing their teddy bears and creating face coverings for hospital role play. Displayed next to the drawing Germs and Hand Sanitiser, by four-year-old Cadi from Pontarddulais, Swansea, is the Young V&A’s Study of a Gas Mask, made between 1939 and 1942 by Byron Dun, aged between 11 and 14 at the time.
“This project has enabled us to move the discussion on from ‘learning loss’ as the only effect of the pandemic on childhood, and given us a chance to reflect on how children may respond now and in the future to crises and emergencies,” Potter said.