Updated: Mar 17, 2020
We have a potion-making master on our adventure playground and last week she made coronavirus. She mixed glue with sand, filling half a bucket with the concoction, then ran towards other children, throwing the goo while scream-singing, ‘you are infected!’ At one point, she burst out of the imaginary scheme into giggles when the potion missed its target and made a slapping sound against the wall of a fort.
The tone was somewhere between fun and serious, that unique place in play where passion runs high, but the health and safety stakes are water-based glue level. Some of the kids on the playground returned her play cue and feigned death or created some kind of shield to block the virus, but a few were fully disgusted. Her mixture looked and behaved like sandy mucus, so much so I had a gag reflex watching it drip down the backs of shirts and sides of structures.
But it wasn’t just the consistency of the goo that put me off. My parents are in their 70s and have varying conditions that place them in the high-risk category for death by COVID-19. They also live 1700 miles away from me, making worry feel like the only way I can help. It was uncomfortable to see something that had kept me awake at night turned into a game, but I’m used to that.
As a playworker, I’m in the position of supporting children’s play agendas, giving them ownership over the process and the space, while also being, undeniably, an adult. No matter how nonhierarchical our relationship leans, I am: several decades older; the one who removes splinters; the person who hands out nails, paint and other expensive supplies; and I know a lot of uncreative, but convenient short cuts towards getting things done. Because of this, I am in a position of power, but not always comfortable.
As advised by mental health professionals, I let children take the lead on discussions about COVID-19. I don’t know what people are telling their children - if they are the sort of family that leaves the news on in the background all evening, or whether they are telling their kids to wash their hands because it’s flu season. Either way, all children feel a shift towards uncertainty and are looking for control over something.
Play is where they will find it. Play is where this invisible virus might become a tangible goo they can dodge or ignore, and where children pop up from death with newly discovered shields and weapons to defeat it. So let your children play out, around, and through this mess if they choose to. And let them take the lead, because they will move in and out of it as they can handle.
On the day before Spring Break, our last play session for who knows how long, the same girl arrived wearing a bathing suit and ready to slip ‘n’ slide. She balanced a rickety structure to get some speed going, so we playworkers read her cue and assembled a sturdier speed boost, in the interest of limited time together:
They played for 2 hours, slip sliding at their own pace, asking for more or less soap, going down forwards or backwards, with spins and without. It was a glorious loose parts construction that accommodated everyone’s needs, including us playworkers who needed a laugh to remind us to take care of ourselves in coming months.
Please make time and space for child-directed endeavors, particularly as schools start sending online assignments and children’s days begin to fill up again with adult directives. Children will need play to make some sort of sense of it all.
Play Wales has a nice handout on the mental health benefits of play, if you need extra motivation