A message from Child Psychiatrist, Dr Mike Shooter, to every parent and carer:

All of you, I know, have been bombarded with instructions: stay home, stay apart, stay well. But I want to give you one more piece of advice.

As a child psychiatrist, I can assure you that play is essential for the physical, psychological and social development of healthy children. Even in times like these, when it is hard enough to survive the present, let alone think about the future.

Play is fun. That's a strange thing to talk about amidst all our anxieties, but children need to see life as happy and exciting. So perhaps you can set your own worries aside for a while and play with your children or the children in your care, in games, in drawing and painting, in just messing about. Who knows, it might make you feel better too.

Play is the context in which children find out about themselves and other people. That is difficult while we are all having to spend much more time in our homes – but children can still make connections with their peer group through social media. We worried quite rightly before, about the amount of time they spent on their screens instead of getting out to play together, but now it seems a saving grace for staying connected.

Play is the way in which children take risks and find that they can overcome them, with a few bumps and bruises along the way. Of course, we must keep them safe in the face of all the dangers around us, and children will need to have the reasons behind the restrictions carefully explained. But children will want to push their play to the limit, to find that they can master the risks and build up their self-confidence. However, with hospital emergency departments struggling to cope we need to step in sooner rather than later when there is a risk to injury. It will be a difficult balance to strike.

Play is unpredictable, like life itself. One of the things we can give our children when they are off school, is the comfort of routines – mealtimes, homework if they've been given any, sitting down to learn things together. But they need room in all that structure for imagination too. Allow them to experiment, to go off on a track of their own, to break the routines occasionally, to surprise themselves, and you. Be amazed.

Play gives children the opportunity to try on different versions of themselves, like fancy dress. To discard some and hold on to others. This is me; this is what I want from life. But life is uncertain at the moment and none of us is sure where we will all end up. Children need to be assured that all this will be over one day, and that they can still rehearse their dreams for the future.

So good luck and thank you – for helping children to have fun, to stay connected, to take risks within an envelope of safety, to expand their imagination, and to keep their dreams alive. Through play. 

Dr Mike Shooter is also Chair of Play Wales’ Board of Trustees