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Children and young people in Northern Ireland have been significantly affected by the restrictions associated with lockdown, with their natural desire to play curbed, potentially impacting their long-term health, wellbeing and development, according to new research published by PlayBoard NI, the lead agency for play in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, PlayBoard surveyed children and young people, ranging in age from five to 18 years, from across Northern Ireland about their experiences during lockdown, with a focus on play and education.

Welcoming the report, PlayBoard Chief Executive Jacqueline O’Loughlin said,

“The Our Voices Matter survey captured the thoughts and feelings of children and young people, confirming that the restrictions placed on society have had a negative impact on their play, education and wellbeing. It is fitting that we are sharing our report on World Children’s Day, a day dedicated to the celebration of children’s rights, when our findings tell us that their right to play has been seriously diminished over the past few months.”

During lockdown, the type of play children were able to engage in changed. Being active through play dropped from 53.2% to 31.4%, participation in social play dropped dramatically from 58.9% to 5%, and technology-based play increased from 33.9% to 55.7%.

Jacqueline commented,

“Covid-19 restrictions changed the way children played and this raises long-term health and wellbeing concerns such as activity levels and socialisation. Engaging in a range of play activities is central to children’s development, learning, health and happiness. Children and young people have faced challenges they wouldn’t normally face, with 60% of those taking part in our survey saying they felt sad during lockdown, and half feeling frustrated, angry or upset. Almost two thirds of children thought that school closures had negatively affected their education, with 90% reporting that meeting their friends was what they missed most.

School is much more than a place of learning for children; it offers structure to their day and allows for social interaction with their peers through play and other activities, essential for their social development. Missing out on these interactions, including with their teachers, was one of the most challenging aspects reported.”

Dr Victoria Simms, Developmental Psychologist at Ulster University commented,

“Play is fundamental for the healthy development of children and young people. The Covid-19 restrictions dramatically changed the way children play, interact and engage in physical activity. Children reported a mixture of experiences, from feeling isolated and sad to feeling creative and enjoying quality time with their families. Children in this study showed great insight and understanding of these changes and why they occurred. However, as we move through, and emerge from, this global pandemic we must prioritise children’s right to play and their education. If we fail to do so we ultimately let down a generation of children who really deserve our respect and support.”

Whilst the report illustrates the negative impact of lockdown there have also been positives, with some children reporting that the restrictions offered an opportunity to explore new play activities and experiences, which enabled them to develop new skills. A small majority reported that remote learning was a positive experience, and they were able to spend more time with their families.

Key recommendations from the report include the adoption and implementation of statutory protections for children’s play, as well as a greater appreciation of the value of play as a key developmental activity in our homes, schools and communities.

The online survey was completed by 280 young people from across Northern Ireland between June and August 2020. The survey and report were compiled by PlayBoard NI with consultant support from Dr Victoria Simms, Ulster University.