Play in the Pandemic

Toys wearing home-made masks
Image: Fei Victor Lim

Cite this article as: Kate Cowan, “Play in the Pandemic,” in PanMeMic, 26/07/2020,

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on all aspects of life. For children, it’s had major consequences for where, when, how and with whom they can play. Closures of schools and playgrounds have restricted spaces for play, while lockdown has limited the amount of time that can be spent outdoors and prohibited close contact with friends.

As a researcher of children’s play and multimodal communication, I’m interested in how play has endured, adapted and responded to these restrictions. This includes ways in which the virus itself has featured in children’s play, and what this can tell us about children’s experiences of the pandemic.

A London playground closed during lockdown.
Image: Kate Cowan

Research such as Playing the Archive has shown that children draw rapidly and readily on the social and cultural context around them, often layering traditional games, local legends, news media and popular culture in their play. It’s therefore unsurprising that since the early stages of the outbreak there have been reports of children’s games referencing the virus. For example, children were observed playing ‘coronavirus tag’ as news of the outbreak spread pre-lockdown, pretending to infect other players through touch. 

Despite a timely renaming, such games build on a long tradition of infection as a theme in play. Folklorist Steve Roud notes that ‘plague’ and ‘fever’ were widespread names for chasing games during the twentieth century, with more recent playground examples including passing ‘the lurgy’ or fictional parasites ‘cooties’ through touch. Such play often includes rituals for in-game immunity including covering your mouth, crossing your fingers or reciting sayings such as, “Injection, injection, no infection”. For older players, contagion and survival feature in games such as the 2008 board game Pandemic and have been central themes in a number of video games (for instance, Resident EvilHalo and Plague Inc.), with the current context bringing this longer play tradition into sharp focus. 

Pandemic: A cooperative board game that asks players, ‘Can you save humanity?’
Image: Z-Man Games

In addition to this history of infection and immunity as themes in games, it seems children are bringing references to the current pandemic into their play. A survey of parents in Ireland during lockdown found examples of children carefully washing dolls’ hands, quarantining Sylvanian Families and building Lego hospitals, complete with ventilators. The virus has also featured in many children’s digital play, for instance through social distancing in The Sims and building coronavirus clinics in Minecraft. A media company even created a new online game, ‘Corona Wash and Vax‘, where players must protect themselves by spraying the virus with disinfectant until a vaccine is found.

An outbreak lever and coronavirus treatment clinic built in Minecraft
Image: James and Arthur Bannister

The power of play for dealing with trauma, grief, stress and uncertainty has been well noted. Spanning reality and fantasy, play is understood to offer a means of exploring challenging ideas and feelings in a way that gives children a degree of distance and control. In his study of children’s play in Jewish communities during the holocaust, George Eisen suggests play brings an element of sanity in the midst of catastrophe. Children’s block play after witnessing the 9/11 disaster and pretend play after traumatic events such as the New Zealand earthquakes highlight the powerful role of play in making sense of difficult experiences and contributing to wellbeing.

As well as the virus featuring explicitly, play has been adapting and evolving in response to new constraints imposed during the pandemic shaping where, when, how and with whom children can play. During a visit to my local park in London during lockdown, I observed children climbing and swinging from the metal fence that had been used to close off play equipment, as if to demonstrate a need and commitment to play. 

‘Splat the virus’ pavement game
Image: Helen Dodd

With playgrounds closed, many have noticed the appearance of hopscotch grids in streets, including adaptation into new pavement games such as ‘splat the virus’. The globally popular teddy challenge involved displaying toy bears in windows during lockdown to support socially distanced play throughout local neighbourhoods, and children have been observed adapting chasing games into forms such as ‘shadow tag‘ to avoid touching. In one example, a pair of girls played a game they called ‘Two Elsas’. This seems to draw on the storyline of Disney’s ‘Frozen’, in which Elsa is kept in isolation because of her unpredictable powers, playing with ideas of quarantine and distancing through a familiar media text. These examples highlight that play and games, although often rooted in tradition, are subject to inventive remaking in response to social context and situational constraints.

We’re going on a bear hunt: stuffed toys placed in windows during lockdown
Image: Dan Wild

With face-to-face play restricted, the affordances of digital play have received growing attention. E-sports and competitive video gaming have gained popularity as many major sporting events have been cancelled. The World Health Organisation has led campaigns such as #playaparttogether, working with game companies to encourage people to stay home and play videogames in support of social distancing. Similarly, online play has been suggested as a solution for tackling loneliness during isolation through the government-endorsed #playandtalk campaign. This encouragement of online play contrasts the World Health Organisation’s 2019 warnings about ‘gaming disorder’ and a narrative of gaming addition, suggesting the pandemic is forcing recognition of the value and potentials of digital play. 

Gaming companies working in partnership with the WHO
Image: PlayApartTogether

In many ways, lines between digital and non-digital play seem to have blurred ever further during the pandemic. Families have reported children playing games such as hide and seek with distant grandparents via Zoom and playing board games or card games virtually across video calls with friends. Such examples suggest that children readily make use of digital tools in creative ways, adapting traditional games to the potentials and constraints of the context and the technologies, and creating new hybrid forms of play in the process. As more and more day-to-day communication and interaction has become mediated digitally under lockdown, we may see a longer-term shift in attitudes towards children’s digital play, perhaps challenging and reshaping notions of ‘screentime’.

Doing an online yoga class with a friend via Zoom
Image: Donna Bryce

Play has been a feature of lockdown for many adults too, with traditional pastimes like jigsaw puzzles seeing a surge in sales as well as digital devices such as the Nintendo Switch. The desert island simulation game Animal Crossing has proven particularly popular, perhaps as a gentle escape from the realities of the pandemic (although players can buy and wear facemasks). The video-sharing app TikTok has seen a rapid increase in users during lockdown, with many joining dance challenges and creating their own playful content. Online pub quizzes have become a new pastime for many, with the playful question-and-answer structure helping to overcome some of the challenges of participating in large social gatherings online.

An avatar in Animal Crossing
Image: Kate Cowan

Playful approaches to enforcing social distancing have also emerged. For example, giant teddy bears used to keep tables empty between diners at a restaurant in Paris, foam ‘pool noodle’ hats used for social distancing at a café in Germany, and a human table football game to keep players apart in Denmark. Through playful humour verging on the absurd, such measures reinforce rules and regulations but lighten an otherwise serious message. 

Teddy bears used to enforce social distancing at a café in Paris
Image: Twitter

It seems that play has had an important role for many of us in enduring recent worldwide events, providing distraction and enjoyment, but also as a means of coping and connecting with others. As lockdown eases, as playgrounds reopen and as more children return to schools, there are ongoing questions about what play will look like and how it may change. Images of children returning to a nursery in France prompted emotional responses and raised questions about the need to carefully balance children’s risks of virus transmission against their recognised right to play.

Assigned play spaces as children returned to a nursery in France
Image: BFM/Twitter

Social distancing of one kind or another is likely to be in place for some time, with further lockdowns at local or national levels likely, suggesting spaces, resources and social groupings for play will continue to be restricted to various degrees. Whilst the UK government is calling for children to “catch up” on missed face-to-face teaching, this must not come at the expense of play. More than ever, there is a need to celebrate, protect and value the role of play in children’s lives.

Existing research on the impacts of quarantine on children’s play is sparse. The varied examples here call for more extensive and comprehensive study of children’s experiences of the COVID-19 crisis through play. Research of this kind would build on existing play archives by creating a ‘play time capsule’ for this unique period. How play endures, adapts and evolves will offer rich insights into children’s experiences of this historical moment and the importance of play in communication, interaction and wellbeing during the pandemic and beyond.

With thanks to friends who shared some of the examples featured in this post, to members of UCL Knowledge Lab for discussing emerging ideas, and to Toby Packard for his expert insights into digital play.

Please get in touch if you would like to share your own examples of play in the pandemic, either by commenting below or on Twitter @KateCowan

Kate Cowan

Dr. Kate Cowan is Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL Institute of Education and a freelance early years consultant. Her work focuses on children’s play, communication and digital technologies from a multimodal perspective. Recent projects include ‘Playing the Archive: Memory, Community and Mixed Reality Play’ (funded by the EPSRC) and ‘Valuing Young Children’s Signs of Learning: Observation and Digital Documentation of Play in Early Years Classrooms’ (funded by The Froebel Trust).

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Kate Cowan

Dr. Kate Cowan is Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL Institute of Education and a freelance early years consultant. Her work focuses on children’s play, communication and digital technologies from a multimodal perspective. Recent projects include ‘Playing the Archive: Memory, Community and Mixed Reality Play’ (funded by the EPSRC) and ‘Valuing Young Children’s Signs of Learning: Observation and Digital Documentation of Play in Early Years Classrooms’ (funded by The Froebel Trust).

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1 Response

  1. Najma Al Zidjaly says:

    Loved this article. Made me think. Thank you.

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