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Pandemic could lead to profound shift in parenting roles, say experts | Life and style



The year 2020 has been transformative for how society sees fatherhood, and could produce the most profound shift in caring responsibilities since the second world war, according to researchers, business leaders and campaigners.

Research has shown that while women bore the brunt of extra childcare during the initial coronavirus lockdown and are being disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout, there has been also a huge surge in the number of hours men are spending with their children.

This could lead to a permanent re-evaluation of the value of fatherhood and a shift in working patterns, according to Ann Francke, the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

“Business leaders have seen firsthand what juggling work and family life entails and that both parents need to be empowered to do that,” she said. The shift to home working had forced business leaders to recognise that flexible working could benefit all employees as well as save money, she said.

“Fathers are vital to progressing gender equality for mothers,” she added. “Without progress for fathers at home there can’t be progress for mothers at work, they are two sides of the same coin.”

In May, the Office for National Statistics found that the first Covid lockdown had led to a 58% increase in childcare undertaken by men, whose working hours dropped by one hour and 37 minutes per day. While women still did more childcare, the gender care gap narrowed. In 2015, the ONS found that men were spending 39% of the time that women spent on childcare, compared to 64% during lockdown.

That could lead to the most profound shift in gender roles since the post-war period, said Adrienne Burgess, joint chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute. “Research tells us that when there is a social movement happening, a crisis often accelerates the movement. For example, before the second world war women were gradually moving into the workplace and the war pushed that on – and I think we are witnessing a similar thinking in men’s involvement in childcare,” she said.

Elliott Rae, the founder of, a parenting and lifestyle platform for men, said he had spoken to many fathers who now regretted not previously seeing much of their children during the working week. “The dads I speak to are reflecting on how wrong they had it before, and how that negatively impacted their family,” said Rae, who has launched a crowdfunder for DAD, a book collecting stories of modern fatherhood on International Men’s Day, which falls on Thursday.

Donald Mbeutcha, from the Dope Black Dads support network, said he felt there had been a societal shift, with greater value placed on fatherhood. “On International Men’s Day we don’t want a celebration of a patriarchy that is celebrated 365 days a year – we want to celebrate fathers taking more active roles rather than just getting up, giving their kids breakfast, going off to work and not coming back until past bedtime,” he said. “I think more men are starting to realise the beauty of fatherhood, the joy and balance it brings.”

If men continued spending more time with their children once the world finds its “new normal”, it could have a lasting positive impact, said Duncan Fisher, of the Family Initiative. “It benefits children and it benefits women,” he said. “But really, it benefits men – loving relationships are fulfilling, and that is what life is all about.”

‘People are more understanding’

Umar Kankiya with his children.

Umar Kankiya with his children. Photograph: Supplied

When the pandemic struck, Umar Kankiya, 35, was feeling completely burnt-out, defeated by the daily grind and feeling like he was constantly in a rush. “I’d get up around 5am, get the kids up, drop my daughter at school, my son at childcare, drop the car off then rush to get the train,” says the mental health solicitor and lecturer. “It was constant stress.”

Then, suddenly, he and his wife, also a solicitor, had both kids at home as the country went into lockdown. Kankiya, on a break from work, became chief carer, teacher and bottom-wiper. And he loved it.

“I’ll be honest, all my dad friends share the same view, lockdown has been an absolute blessing in terms of spending time with our children, and seeing them grow and develop,” he says. “I have no hankering to get back to the way it was before.”

Kankiya got a new job in May, and he and his wife, like many couples both working from home, started working in shifts with occasional Zoom bombing from their children, aged five and two and a half. “People are more understanding, a lot more aware that you are also a dad. There isn’t that feeling of needing to shy away from that.”

He is convinced that when something like normality returns, few dads will want to return to the way things were before. “I’d like to think when things do get back to normality they are not going to be afraid to speak up.”

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‘All children seek joy and opportunities to experiment’: the universal language of play | Child’s play and learning




She is climbing an old oak tree with her siblings

All kinds of play create connections in the brain that aid the child’s development.
Composite: Getty Images/Guardian Labs

We’ve all seen pictures and footage of children playing in the most unlikely situations. Using an old rope to skip on the dusty ground of a refugee camp, racing tyres at the base of a rubbish dump or floating paper boats in monsoon flood water. Children play across cultures and classes. They play despite wars, disasters and pandemics. They play because it is a developmental imperative. In fact, play is so essential to a child’s growth that the UN has enshrined it as a fundamental right.

“A young child is born with a brain full of neurons,” explains Bo Stjerne Thomsen, chair of Learning Through Play at the LEGO Foundation. “They are born to learn and develop, but they need experiences to do this; they need to touch, to feel, to try things out, because every time they have a positive and stimulating experience, it connects the networks in the brain and supports their development and learning.”

Play is what gives children these experiences. Whether it is physical play such as climbing a tree, or object play such as building a tower; be it symbolic play such as drawing, or pretend play such as dressing up, or whether it’s games that have rules and constraints: whatever the type of play a child is engaged in, important connections are being made in the brain that aid the social, emotional, creative, cognitive and physical growth of the child.

“You see the same characteristics across all cultures and all socioeconomic groups,” says Thomsen. “Children seek joy, positive experiences, opportunities to experiment, to test and try out things, to be active and not passive, and to really have agency and choice.”

When children play they develop their executive functions, those high-level cognitive processes that enable them to initiate, plan and follow through tasks, sustain attention, monitor performance, inhibit impulses and have goal-directed persistence. These skills are essential for learning and everyday life.

“I was worried about my children playing for months on end during lockdown instead of learning in a formal environment,” says Lindsey Conen, a mother of two primary-aged children in east London. “However, I’ve found that since they have returned to school they seem so much more engaged and willing to learn than they were before, so something has been going on for them in all that play.”

Children making a tower of wooden blocks

Every time a tower topples and a child picks up the pieces to start again, they are becoming more resilient and learning skills that will make them a better team player. Composite: Getty Images/Guardian Labs

Thomsen believes that Conen’s anecdotal experience of school learning being improved by a prolonged period of guided play may well be backed up by future research into the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. “It has definitely been proven that play improves executive functions,” he says. “If you build a model, you are selecting and sorting pieces, putting them together, figuring out if it is stable, remembering what each piece does; when you do this you learn to guide your attention and build self-regulation and self-control and that is a good predictor of whether you will learn in school.”

Educational psychologist Melernie Meheux agrees. “Play is important for many aspects of brain development,” she says. “But learning to self-regulate, to inhibit inappropriate behaviour and control emotion is one of the most important for succeeding in a formal learning environment.”

Every time a tower topples and a child picks up the pieces to start again, they are becoming more resilient and learning skills that will make them a better team player, a better collaborator.

“I certainly saw my two become better at dealing with their emotions during their time away from school,” says Conen. “The more they played together, the better they became at resolving their conflicts.”

Meheux explains that when children play they repeatedly rehearse and experience a range of emotions, including disappointment, frustration, determination, confidence and achievement, and can learn to regulate these feelings. “Through free play children develop lifelong skills like flexibility, sustained social relationships and resilience,” she says.

As children grow and develop, what they demand from play changes. Infants require responsive, stimulating interactions with caregivers and lots of opportunity to learn about their environment through tactile encounters. Between the ages of six and nine, children incline more to pretend play with lots of dress-up and roleplay, which encourages them to learn about other ways of seeing the world; then as they move towards the teenage years, symbolic play and more complex games with rules come to the fore.

When they get into their teens play begins to look a little different. “In the older age group play becomes more about smaller projects, problem- and practice-based learning,” says Thomsen. “So you might support them to do the evening meal, but change two ingredients in the recipe so they can take ownership. Or ask them to plan an entire day of a holiday, researching where to go and what to do.”

And play isn’t just for children, it is important for the parent or caregiver to get involved, too. “By playing with your child you are strengthening your bond, sharing quality time, and providing essential vocabulary and language models,” says Meheux. “Remember what play felt like. How important it was to you when you were a child. Share some laughter and allow the positive chemicals to boost your own mood as well as your child’s. Adults need to be playful, just as much as children do. Especially at times like this.”

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Marble runs and building bridges: five creative, educational play ideas for kids | Child’s play and learning




Drawing with brush little kid. Horizontal indoors shot

Joining a child in play helps them develop their creativity.
Composite: Stocksy/Guardian Labs

Whether it’s a toddler making a trail of handprints across a piece of paper, or a seven-year-old repurposing a cardboard tube to make a marble run, play empowers children to become creative. When children create, they experience the joy of interacting with the world and of changing it and being changed by it.

“Born into an age of rapid innovation, our children need a creative mindset more than ever,” says Garrett Jaeger, a developmental psychologist and research specialist at the LEGO Foundation, an organisation that advocates for learning through play. “Play-based learning is the best way to help children develop these skills and set them on the path to becoming future innovators and flexible thinkers.”

Add a responsive caregiver into the mix and the creativity of the child can be taken to the next level. “We need to let the child lead, so they can take ownership,” says Jaeger. “But we can enhance their experience by adding constraints and challenging them to select high-quality ideas.”

Parenting expert and GP Clare Bailey says playing alongside your child is also vital to improving their social and emotional development. “Play is the golden key to building a better relationship with your child. They will feel closer to you, and will be more likely to cooperate and do what you ask. Even 10 minutes of play together a day makes a difference.” Joining a child in play not only helps them develop their creativity, but it teaches them about sharing, negotiating, cooperating, and being kind and humorous.

Creativity can be fostered by all sorts of games and activities, not just the obviously creative ones, such as painting and drawing.

“We wanted to help parents find new ways of engaging creatively with their children and so have developed a ‘playlist’ of activities that caregivers can choose from when they are stuck for ideas,” says Jaeger. “Very few of these activities actually involve LEGO bricks, we have tried to use things that are readily available not just in Boston, but in Bangladesh.”

Using household objects, such as toilet rolls, paper plates and old cloth, allows children to reimagine what objects are. “So the next time they see that paper plate they are going to be dreaming about what it might become. That is the kernel of creativity we want to plant.”

Here are five activities from the playlist for you to try at home.

Build a bridge
Build a bridge using LEGO or DUPLO bricks and make sure a minifigure can walk over it and a toy boat can go under it.

“Don’t be afraid of rules with creativity. There is a lot of power in just putting a few constraints on a task and watching children push up against them and even try to break those rules,” explains Jaeger, who says children instinctively know that a bridge has to start on one piece of land and end on another. If the bridge collapses they learn one of the fundamental rules of creativity: if things go wrong, you can choose to start over.

“When they start to walk that little man over it, the creation becomes meaningful for them because they have begun to play with it,” he says.

Take a piece of plain paper and fold it into three sections. The first participant draws a head on the top section and then marks the neckline on the middle section. The second participant draws the torso and marks the leg lines on the final section and the third participant (or back to the first, if just two players) draws in the legs.

This is an old creativity activity known as “exquisite corpse” or “exquisite cadaver”, and it can also be done with text. There is room for elaboration by drawing imaginary beasts, or changing the number of folds. This sparks the imagination and provides a lesson about a different way of collaborating. Also, the results are often hilarious. “I spent a whole afternoon during lockdown doing this with my two children aged three and five,” says Nicola Moss, from Stroud. “We stuck all the crazy drawings up on the wall and then began to tell each other stories about them.”

Flip the blanket
Can you flip a blanket over with people standing, lying or sitting on it?

This may not seem like a creative activity, as it feels more like a game of Twister with people getting tangled up and often falling over. However, the game helps you to see a flat piece of material in a different way. It changes your perspective. It is a game that exercises physical and mental flexibility.

Make a parachute that gets a LEGO minifigure or small toy safely to the ground.

This is a physics experiment made fun. Working with a paper plate or a piece of tissue paper and some string, work out how many points of contact you need to have with your string, and how short or long those points need to be so the character doesn’t tip. The fact it is, a parachute engages the imagination and children begin to tell stories with it.

Young boy playing with marbles on living room floor

Marbles on their own are less fun – add cardboard tubes or guttering to make a track. Composite: Getty Images/Guardian Labs

Marbles on the run
Can you build a racetrack and let your marbles run?

“This encourages children to reimagine materials in their home, [such as] old cardboard tubes, or bits of guttering,” says Jaeger. “It’s a favourite of ours at the LEGO Foundation. You can look at what others have created with the hashtag #chainreaction, some are really phenomenal.”

Having fun with your child will not only increase your bond and boost their creative thinking, you may actually find you have fewer interruptions. “Once a child knows that you will join them when you can, they are more likely to be accommodating to your schedule,” says Bailey. Meaning you may just have enough time to work on your own creative contribution to society.

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‘While we’re going through such change, we have to engage our children’: the importance of play during coronavirus | Child’s play and learning




Two young girls dressing up

Role play is particularly important for revealing children’s inner worlds.
Composite: Flashpop/Getty Images/Guardian Labs

Before March 2020, few of us had heard the terms “self-isolation”, “lockdown” and “social-distancing” – but they have now become ubiquitous as we adjust to living through a global pandemic. So it’s not surprising that lockdown has left a third of children feeling more worried or stressed, according to a recent poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Barnardo’s.

Another survey by YouGov, for Public Health England (PHE), found that more than half of parents with children aged five to 18 said that their primary concern for their children was their mental wellbeing. Almost a quarter of parents said that not knowing what action to take had prevented them supporting their children’s mental wellbeing. PHE recommends establishing a routine and encouraging children to indulge in their interests and hobbies to help counteract this.

Laura Maher, an education lecturer from Warwickshire, says play is central in developing the holistic wellbeing of the child and that it can help assuage anxiety during stressful times. “With an ever-increasing focus on formal learning, it’s more important than ever for adults to see the educational value in play,” she says.

Playing not only provides a welcome distraction but also helps build resilience and coping mechanisms, says Dr Genevieve von Lob, a clinical psychologist and author. “Play is like breathing to children. It’s essential for processing emotions, building resilience and to give them a sense of control,” she says. “Playtime offers ideal opportunities for children to express natural emotion such as anger, sadness or happiness in a safe environment and explore their identities in relation to their peers, their family and the world.”

It’s through play, especially role-play, that children reveal what is going on in their inner world, says von Lob. “Children will often role-play different characters and give their dolls or teddies the voice they are unable to express themselves because their feelings are too confusing. This can help them feel powerful in a world where they often feel small and powerless.”

Two boys in cardboard boxes playing with can and string phones

Playing with found objects helps develop a child’s imagination and creativity. Composite: Stocksy/Guardian Labs

Sarah Bouchie, LEGO Foundation’s vice president of global programmes, says play also helps children strengthen their relationships with the people around them and reinforces bonding. “I have friends who say it can be hard to find the time to sit down and play with their child, but we can incorporate play into day-to-day life, such as counting the steps or singing a song on the way to school. Little things like this can make a real difference,” she says.

Von Lob believes unstructured, free play is one of the most effective ways children can learn to socialise and interact with others. “Playing creates a sense of belonging to the group and feeling part of a community,” she says. “Children learn to communicate, negotiate, share and cooperate through play. As they mature, they learn teamwork, collaboration, and taking the perspectives of others.”

Maher believes that grownups can promote a love of play by encouraging indoor and outdoor exploration. “Finding loose parts – crates, cardboard tubes, plastic bottles etc – and natural objects [such as] shells, sticks and stones to create something will not only help develop a child’s imagination and creativity, but also provides them the opportunity to develop problem solving, cooperation and negotiation skills,” she says. Creating a story from household objects, which helps bring the outside inespecially on rainy days, can reinforce these skills.

It’s clear that children recognise how play can help calm them. Sophie Clark-Venner, an early years specialist and founder of MontiSensory, says her nine-year-old son, Sebastian, realises how beneficial playing can be.

“I discussed what playing teaches us with Sebastian and he said ‘resilience’. He said: ‘You can spend a long time building something amazing and then put the final piece on and it gets knocked down by your brother and you have to start again, but that’s OK because the second time you build it, it will be even better!’”

Clark-Venner says play is crucial to a child’s physical development. “As adults we know the benefits of exercise both for our bodies and our minds,” she explains. “Children have an innate drive to get up and move their bodies. They love to move. Dancing or playing at the park are fun and natural for them but what’s underneath all that is their bodies saying ‘get up, move about, strengthen your muscles, fine tune your balance and coordination’.”

Bouchie says it’s never been more important for parents to play with their children. “Children pick up on more than we think they do about what’s going on in the world, so now, while we’re going through such change, is the time for us to connect and engage with them,” she says. “We know that playing with children helps them to develop their social and emotional skills, which are key to reducing stress in difficult situations. If we can help them increase these executive functions, we can help give them a sense of control and joy during this time of uncertainty.”

The LEGO Foundation has developed a free online course, Coping with Changes: Social-Emotional Learning Through Play, to help give primary caregivers and teachers knowledge and ideas on how to boost children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

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