Getting children back in school doesn’t have to mean a rush into the classroom and access to outdoor play and learning should be an entitlement, not a privilege, write Marguerite Hunter Blair and Anita Grant

The mental and physical health benefits of outdoor play and the effectiveness of outdoor learning approaches are well known. They were confirmed last week by the Covid-19 and Children’s Play report, which provides compelling evidence that schools and childcare settings should not enforce rigid social distancing in playgrounds and outdoor spaces, and should plan for a significant expansion in outdoor learning.

While we are all familiar with data that show the novel virus has far less impact on children and young people, teachers’ concerns about their own safety are nonetheless justified. The rise in outbreaks in schools since they have started welcoming more pupils back confirms this. As primaries’ doors open ever wider, and secondaries start to join them, safety must be paramount.

It is frustrating then that so much of the return to school is characterised as a return to classrooms when, in fact, outdoor learning and play are not only good at precisely the things children coming out of lockdown need most, but also safer for everyone concerned. It is inspiring best practice in this aspect of provision that should be the top priority for education leaders.

According to our report, helping children and young people to connect with nature, be more active and have fun together will promote and create the conditions for optimal learning. Key to building this play-led outdoor learning paradigm in is communication with the school community about the benefits of the approach. It is right that parents should be keen that children ‘catch up’, but moving children physically back into school needs to be managed, with play and socialisation as priorities.

Child development experts are predicting a national disaster

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) Scotland’s Cost of the School Day report found that children were “desperate” to return to school because it was their main opportunity to socialise with friends. Meanwhile, child development experts are predicting a “national disaster” as lockdown threatens to create a generation with mental health problems. This must lead the agenda for any recovery curriculum.

Challenges faced by children – poverty, disadvantage, disability discrimination and race discrimination – have been exacerbated by the impact of COVID 19 restrictions.  The very same students who have been disproportionately disadvantaged throughout the crisis are least likely to have access to outdoor spaces for play and learning. If we are to close disadvantage gaps, rectifying this must be part of the solution.

Emotional health in childhood is linked to long-term mental and physical health difficulties, and poor academic and occupational functioning. It is also the number one predictor of adult life satisfaction. Mental health problems during childhood also place a significant economic burden on society. That’s why the Play First: Supporting Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing During and After Lockdown report also calls for children’s social and emotional wellbeing to be prioritised in all decisions relating to the easing of lockdown and re-opening of schools.

Following this extended period of restriction and isolation, children’s play and learning will need to involve some degree of agency that will enable them to take on an active role and ownership of their experiences. Playing freely with friends and peers enables them to process their experiences and develop resilience. Outdoor play is particularly beneficial during times of anxiety, stress, and adversity: it provides a sense of control and independence; it helps children make sense of things they find hard to understand; it supports their coping and resilience.

The COVID and Children’s Play report shows that the benefits to children’s mental health and wellbeing of playing and learning outside together with others far outweigh the minimal risks to them and the adults around them. More than that, it is likely to minimise the risks associated with a return to the classroom, provided commonsense measures are maintained.

An increase in play-led outdoor learning in schools can pave the way to better outcomes for children at school and in the community, now and for the rest of their lives. And it will support physical distancing for adults in these settings too.