‘I’m sick of seeing your faces.’
‘We’ve been with each other for 7 weeks now and I’ve had enough of you.’
‘I hate those children.’
‘It’s not fair.’
‘I’m sad Mummy.’
Absolutely no hurt intended from these words uttered by my 9 year old son this week; in his very honest, factual way, he was telling me the truth and how he was feeling. He is autistic and in many ways I think it is a great gift that he is able to honestly articulate his truth. Sadly, I think there is a long way to go until everyone understands that speaking so directly isn’t a sign of rudeness or a behaviour choice.
It all came to a head when he awoke on Bank Holiday Friday to the sounds of neighbourhood children (siblings) giggling together playing on a trampoline in their garden. He was immediately wobbled by this and angry, ‘I hate those children!’ My son is an only child. We talked about what was happening, how he was feeling and why and we let him know that we understood and we knew how hard it was for him and that we knew he was missing his best friend.
As a distraction, we decided to go for a family cycle around our local town; this is one of the things that we love to do together and being outside and cycling always makes my son feel calm and happy. Unfortunately, we hadn’t anticipated that many of our local streets would be celebrating VE Day in such a big way. As we cycled round the estates, there were people celebrating together in their front gardens and in the streets. I knew immediately that the cycle ride was a mistake and it wasn’t going to help. My son went really quiet and then said, ‘I’m sad Mummy, I want to go home.’ We went straight home.
As soon as we got home, my son collapsed on the sofa in my arms and sobbed and sobbed; squealing wracking sobs. We hadn’t realised how much he was struggling; it seemed to have come from nowhere. It was heart-wrenching for us to see him like that but for him I think, he needed to cry. He told us that he was angry that everyone else was having a good time playing and seeing friends and family and we weren’t (as that was how it appeared to him). He told us that he was ‘sick of our faces’ and he just wanted to see and properly play with his friend. He said that we don’t play with him. We were surprised; we talked with him about some of the lovely things we have done together as a family recently: baking, gardening, cycling, painting but he articulated that to him these things weren’t ‘proper play.’ He just wanted to run around with his friend and play the playground games that they used to, including ‘lawnmowers’ a game that seems to involve a couple of his friends running around cutting the grass and scything down bushes together! We had seriously underestimated how much he was missing this type of play. We thought we had most bases well covered in our home-schooling timetable but this week, a stark reminder that some things just can’t be replicated and the huge importance of peer social interaction and play.
The University of Sussex released a paper this week written by mental health experts from various universities: Play First – Supporting Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing During and After Lockdown. It stated that, ‘children’s social and emotional wellbeing should be prioritised in all decisions relating to the easing of lockdown and re-opening of schools. Children across the UK currently have a play deficit because they are deprived of the chance to play with peers. Play with peers is critically important for children’s social, cognitive and literacy development. Play is beneficial during times of anxiety, stress and adversity: it provides a sense of control and independence; it helps children make sense of things they find hard to understand ; it supports their coping and resilience . In highly stressful situations (e.g. war zones, in hospital, in orphanages) research shows that playing with other children is therapeutic.’ The report pulls together 6 important recommendations for when children return to school prioritising social and emotional learning and mental health and wellbeing through play whilst recognising the current essential limitations of social distancing.
Following the Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday evening, parents, teachers and Headteacher’s thoughts will be focused on the proposal to reopen Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in Primary Schools on the 1st June, if the data supports this. The health and wellbeing of the whole-school community will be top priority for everyone. The importance of children’s play as part of the transition back to school cannot be underestimated but is it really possible for schools to consider this yet and is it even a practical possibility?
For us now, looking ahead to week 9 of home schooling, we are going to do the best we can do for our son. We’re going to make sure we make plenty of opportunities for silly play, dancing, creative play, remote control car obstacle races in the garden, hide and seek and any other ‘play’ my son comes up with. He needs this and his health and wellbeing is our top priority right now.