Play is not just a leisure activity for children. They discover the world while playing and learn for later life. How has Corona changed that?

The corona pandemic has turned pretty much everything upside down that was otherwise taken for granted by children.

Suddenly they were no longer allowed to move freely outside, kindergartens and schools were closed for a long time, and they could no longer just meet up with friends to play. It has also changed the way children play. But will this also have long-term consequences?

“For the children, the two years are a longer emotional time than for us adults, a time that has had a big impact on them. Getting out of the thought patterns is difficult, »says Claudia Neumann from the German Children’s Fund in Berlin. This is why this year’s World Game Day on May 28th has the motto “We need play and exercise – outside and together”.

Difficulties even before the pandemic

Even before the pandemic, it was difficult for children to live out their urge to move, explains Neumann. On the one hand, the densely populated cities lack sufficient open and play areas, and on the other hand, children have little time for this in everyday school life. “When all the other tasks are done, the children can only play.”

Corona has strengthened this trend, says Neumann. A survey showed that families and children spent more time outside during the first lockdown in spring because online lessons were not organized that well at the time. But there were also differences: children in the cities moved less, also because school and club sports were no longer available. In the second lockdown from winter, everyone would have spent more time indoors – because of the cold temperatures and because a lot of school work had to be caught up on.

Sales in the toy industry reached record levels

For the educator Volker Mehringer from the University of Augsburg, there is no question that the pandemic had consequences for playing. “When the framework conditions change, the game also changes,” he says. But there is still no solid scientific knowledge on how exactly the pandemic affected. “But you can read one or two things from consumer behavior.”

The toy industry was able to increase its sales to record levels in 2020 and 2021. “Employment was the order of the day,” says Ulrich Brobeil from the German Association of the Toy Industry (DSVI). Board games, puzzles, handicraft accessories and outdoor toys such as balls or sand molds were particularly in demand.

“Playing was during corona therapy,” says Brobeil. Apparently for adults too. In a representative survey by the opinion research institute YouGov on behalf of the DSVI, 40 percent of those surveyed last year said that games had helped them through the pandemic period. 37 percent stated that games will continue to be more important to them in the future.

Germans like parlor games

“Germany has always been a great party game country,” says Christin Lumme from the German Games Archive, whose collection includes 40,000 games from five centuries. “Corona has certainly given it a boost.” The nice thing about parlor games is that everyone is the same at the gaming table. Children learned to stick to common rules, to win, but also to be able to lose. In the Corona period, many families had more time for it because many other leisure activities were not possible, says Lumme. Online platforms on which people can play board games together digitally have also boomed.

On World Play Day, the organizers now want to focus more on the importance of play for children. “Playing is the main occupation, especially for children,” says researcher Volker Mehringer. It is estimated that children up to the age of 6 spend 10,000 to 15,000 hours on it – and they learn unconsciously and with great fun. “They create optimal learning conditions for themselves. Parents can give impetus. But above all, children need the freedom to make their own decisions and pick things that challenge them,” says Mehringer.

Mehringer: Parents lack acceptance for free play

From an adult perspective, a particular game may not always be immediately obvious. At second glance, you can often see how much motor skills, imagination and abstract thinking are being tried out, says Mehringer. Nevertheless, parents often lack the acceptance of free play, says the expert Neumann. Instead, they rely on educational games. “It’s a paradox, because they’re not about playing at all.” But free play in particular is important for later life, she says: “If you didn’t learn to let your imagination run free as a child, you won’t be able to do it as an adult either.”