The Impact of COVID-19 and Associated Restrictions on Children’s Play at Home

covid-19 ep research play sharing ep practice trainee educational psychologist Apr 18, 2024
Girl on scooter with mask representing restrictions on play COVID-19

by Aidan Fielding (Trainee Educational Psychologist, The University of Manchester), supervised by Dr Emma Harding (Academic and Professional Tutor, The University of Manchester)

In his blog, Aidan explores the impact of COVID-19 and associated restrictions on children's play at home. Drawing from play theory and recent research, he explores how the pandemic has altered the landscape of children's play, examining changes in play behaviours and potential long-term effects.

Children’s play has long been an area of interest for psychologists and other professionals, with prominent names in play theory such as Friedrich Froebel, Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, and Lev Vygotsky (Taylor & Boyer, 2019). Extensive research has demonstrated the critical importance of play for children’s development across different areas, with some considering it to be as important as basic needs like sleep, water, and nutrition (Leibowitz, 2020). Indeed, children have a right to play under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; United Nations, 1989) that was later reaffirmed by General Comment No. 17 (UNCRC, 2013), which sought to highlight the importance of this right.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s ability to enact their human rights was universally affected by the implementation of health and safety restrictions, such as social distancing and household isolation. The status of children’s play compared to other human rights was then highlighted by the incremental lifting of restrictions, whereby the return to work, children’s education, and adult leisure were all prioritised above play (Casey & McKendrick, 2023). This meant that children’s play was predominantly limited to the home environment for much of the pandemic. But what was the impact of this on children’s play behaviours and have the changes noticed during times of restriction persisted in the long-term?


Literature review

A literature review carried out during the pandemic showed that children spent less time playing outdoors, instead spending more time inside and using electronic devices (Kourti et al., 2021). However, play was seen to be used as a coping mechanism and, whilst children missed their friends, many played more with their caregivers or siblings during this time.

A further review was conducted, including studies carried out around the world published since the above (Fielding & Harding, 2023). Findings suggested that children’s play had changed at a foundational level during times of restriction, in terms of where, with whom, and how much they played. The activities children could and could not pursue were also affected, with increases in screen time reported. Some of the factors that interacted with children’s play included their socioeconomic status and geographical location, disposition of child and caregiver, and COVID-19 itself.


Analytical themes from a thematic synthesis of the literature - childrens play

Figure 1. Analytical themes from a thematic synthesis of the literature.


This study

Following this latter review, an empirical study was undertaken to explore the changes that caregivers had noted in their children’s play at home during lockdown and over the six-months preceding the study (Fielding & Harding, 2024). This took the form of a survey comprised of closed- and open-ended questions, which was completed by 124 caregivers in the northwest of England between February – April 2023. Closed ended questions used Likert scales to quantify how much individual play types were observed on a scale of 1 (much less than before) to 5 (much more than before), with 3 (the same as before) suggesting no change. Open ended questions sought to gain further information about changes that were not captured by the Likert scales. Quantitative data were analysed using paired samples t tests, comparing responses for lockdown with those for the last six months. Qualitative data were coded with the above analytical themes in mind.


play types most affected by lifting of covid restrictions

Figure 2. The play types most affected by the lifting of restrictions.


Quantitative findings

The amount of time children had to play was most impacted by the lifting of restrictions, which was reflected by a large effect size. Though children had much more time to play during the pandemic, they generally had less time to play between November 2022 – April 2023 than they had beforehand. Caregivers noted that this was because of the return to school and extracurricular activities after lockdown ended.

Play with a caregiver and play outside were also affected by the lifting of restrictions, which was reflected by medium effect sizes. Whilst these play types had increased during lockdown, they were slightly decreased between November 2022 – April 2023. Therefore, findings indicate that children were generally playing with their caregivers and outside less than they had before the pandemic.


The impact of restrictions on children’s screen time - covid lockdown

Figure 3. The impact of restrictions on children’s screen time.


Children’s play on devices was relatively unaffected by the lifting of restrictions, which was reflected by a small effect size. This was elevated during lockdown and remained elevated after restrictions had eased. Caregivers noted that this was because their children had relied on devices for learning and socialising during the pandemic. Whilst this was largely positive during lockdown, there was concern about the sustained increase in time spent on devices. However, it was felt to be a difficult thing to change.


Qualitative findings

Caregivers described a variety of ways in which their children’s play changed during the pandemic. The things that led to these changes were children’s affect, COVID-19 itself, and their chronological age. Affect was the largest category, with caregivers reporting withdrawal, sadness, stress, frustration, anger, and tantrums. Many of these things were still being observed between November 2022 – April 2023. However, some children were happier, more content, and more relaxed during lockdown, whilst others had improved mood, greater independence, and more confidence when restrictions were lifted.

A range of play activities were reported, including board games, crafting, cooking, family time, and sports. Some caregivers felt their children became more imaginative, whereas others reported less imaginative play and a narrowing of interests. Screen time was widely reported, and several children also spent more time online. Whilst some children made new friends this way, others did not have access to devices and struggled to maintain friendships. Children missed their friends during times of restriction and caregivers felt they missed crucial steps in their development.

Who children played with, where they played, and how much they played also changed across the two periods. For example, those who had siblings played with them more and those who had access to gardens played outside more (weather permitting). Some caregivers shared positive feelings about lockdown bringing their families together, whereas others shared negative feelings and hoped lockdown was a thing of the past.

Qualitative themes and sub-themes

Figure 4. Qualitative themes and sub-themes.



  • There is a societal need to place greater value on children’s play, including in the home environment, which must be reflected by policy and practice.
  • A more child-centred approach to crisis management should seek to preserve children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including their right to play.
  • Caregivers need to be supported in encouraging child-led play activities at home that do not require additional resources.
  • A focus (of the above) on non-device-based adult-child play activities may help to alleviate caregiver concerns regarding increases in screen time.
  • Educational psychologists have an important role in championing children’s right to play, both during possible future instances of local and national restriction and for those children who continue to experience barriers to play unrelated to the pandemic.
  • Future research may seek to explore the long-term play-related skills development of children who were born during the pandemic. 


Reflective Questions for EP practice

  1. In what ways can educational psychologists collaborate with caregivers, schools and policymakers to ensure that children's rights to play are upheld, especially in times of crisis, and how might these efforts contribute to broader societal changes in valuing play?

  2. Considering the varied impacts of the pandemic on children's play behaviours and experiences, what implications does this suggest for the design and implementation of interventions aimed at promoting healthy play habits and supporting children's well-being?

  3. How can educational psychologists advocate for and implement strategies that foster diverse and enriching play experiences for children, both within and beyond the confines of the educational setting, ensuring that play remains central to holistic child development and well-being?


Reflective Questions for Teachers

  1. How have you observed the COVID-19 pandemic impacting children's engagement in play both within the school environment and at home, and what strategies have you implemented to support and encourage play?

  2. In what ways do you see play integrated into your curriculum and classroom practices, and how do you balance the educational goals with the benefits of play for children's cognitive, social, and emotional development?

  3. Can you share any observations or experiences where you've witnessed the transformative power of play in promoting inclusivity, collaboration, and positive relationships among children, and how do you nurture and sustain these play-based interactions within your school community?



  • Casey, T., & McKendrick, J. H. (2023). Playing through crisis: Lessons from COVID-19 on play as a fundamental right of the child. The International Journal of Human Rights, 27(9-10), 1369-1388.
  • Fielding, A., & Harding, E. (2023). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions on children’s play: A systematic literature review. Manuscript submitted for publication.
  • Fielding, A., & Harding, E. (2024). The ongoing impact of social and locality restrictions on children's play at home – how play changed during the pandemic, and how it remains different. Manuscript submitted for publication.
  • Kourti, A., Stavridou, A., Panagouli, E., Psaltopoulou, T., Tsolia, M., Sergentanis, T. N., & Tsitsika, A. (2021). Play behaviors in children during the COVID-19 pandemic: A review of the literature. Children, 8(8), 706.
  • Leibowitz, J. A. (2020). Protecting play: It’s a matter of life and death. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 19(2), 125-133.
  • UNCRC. (2013). General comment No. 17 on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31). UNCRC.
  • United Nations. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child (UNCRC). UNICEF.
  • Taylor, M. E., & Boyer, W. (2020). Play-based learning: Evidence-based research to improve children’s learning experiences in the kindergarten classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 48, 127-133. 




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