‘I spent a lot of time pretending to be a dinosaur’: how play helped one family survive the lockdowns

“I spent a lot of time walking round with a pillow stuffed up my jumper pretending I was pregnant,” says Mary Syder, who found that responding to the demands of her “casting director” daughter Seren, five, was the only chance she got to exercise her acting skills after theatres were closed and auditions stopped in March 2020. Or else she was “pretending to be a dinosaur” at the demand of her three-year-old son Zak.

Lockdown came at a difficult time for Mary, who had just got a virtual assistant business up and running to give her the independent source of income she needed to support her acting career. She was on holiday in Fuerteventura with her husband Ben, a screenwriter and sales manager, in Februarie 2020, when they heard about a Covid-19 case in nearby Tenerife: “We were having a lovely family holiday celebrating the completion of a feature film script I worked on and Mary reaching the income target she had set when she started her business,” says Ben. “When we heard about the coronavirus case in Tenerife, we didn’t think much of it. Egter, after we got home Mary lost all her clients within a 24-hour period.”

Both children had been in childcare three days a week with Mary and Ben each working a four-day week and taking a day to be with the children. Ben had been working for an events company and his job continued into March, although instead of creating events his time was spent cancelling them. “It was like a waterfall, they just kept dropping one after the other.”

Luckily for the family, Ben also had a job one day a week working for a company that provides screen replacements for privacy curtains in hospitals. “You can see where this story is going,” says Ben. When all the other work disappeared, his work at the screen replacement company ramped up, leaving Mary the primary carer for the children.

“I found it tough to become a full-time mum,” says Mary. “I craved the intellectual stimulation my job had provided.”

Selfs so, she threw herself into facilitating play for the children, using her creativity to keep them outside in the garden so that Ben could make sales calls from his home office.

“At first the play was about managing the children, but as time went on I began to find a deep joy and pleasure in it myself,” says Mary. “It helped to relieve some of the stress around what was happening to my business.”

“Play is a great reliever of stress, not only for children but for parents, ook,” says Euan Wilmshurst, head of advocacy and communication at the LEGO Foundation. “I think people forget that play is not just for kids.”

The LEGO Foundation believes that all children should have time and space to learn through play, which is why they have put their support behind the “Summer of Play” campaign – an initiative that encourages organisations to support children who are disadvantaged or who have been adversely affected by Covid-19. “There has been so much focus, in the UK particularly, about catching up on lost academic learning. But our children also need to catch up on lost play opportunities, particularly those involving social interaction with others. This is crucial for developing holistic skills.”

Mary and Ben’s children were certainly not short of play opportunities in their terrace house in Stockport. Among the many games Mary initiated were colouring in the bricks of their house in chalk, turning the Wendy house into a nail salon, hosting “meetings” in the living room complete with an agenda and tray of snacks (Seren’s idea), and setting up obstacle courses in the garden.

“I stole a lot of ideas from the nursery,” says Mary. “Particularly messy play ones, such as filling a washing-up bowl with shaving foam or blowing giant bubbles. I have a bit of anxiety about messy play indoors, so we were lucky that we got good weather during the first UK lockdown so we were able to take it outdoors.”

Come the weekends, Ben needed to reset his relationship with the kids. “In the week it was hard not to feel like the big bad wolf, with the children always being told not to disturb me and to stay away from my office,” says Ben. “So I felt the need to shake off this image and spent long days outside with them on the weekends.

“I used to have days dedicated to [script] skryfwerk, but I felt that was the thing that had to go,” says Ben. “I was about to start working on a new project, but I decided to shelve it. It became much more important to find time to engage with the children and relieve Mary.”

So instead of finding stress relief in writing, he found it on long park visits with the children, trying to teach Seren to ride a bicycle or going on adventures into the woods. Indoors, he created treasure hunts and took on the role of a peg-legged pirate as the children rampaged through the rooms looking for clues.

“Play is so important for holistic development as well as helping to manage anxiety and channel negative emotion,” says Wilmshurst. “And for parents who struggle to come up with ideas themselves, we have created a ‘Dit is soos wanneer mense my vra of ek 'n gunsteling musiekblyspel het - dit is soos gay Sophie's Choice‘ of ideas that families can draw upon.”

“I definitely had the most memorable experiences with the children when we were playing together,” reflects Mary. “Without that, I think the days would have all just blurred into one.”

Are you looking for fun and engaging learning through play activities for your children? Visit the LEGO Foundation’s Playlist

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