Coronavirus: Toddlers from poorest families 'missing out' on outdoor space and books in lockdown

Catherine Gaunt
Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Babies and toddlers from disadvantaged families spent less time outdoors and reading and playing with their parents during lockdown than their better-off peers, according to new research.

The closure of playgrounds and libraries has 'disproportionately' affected the poorest families
The closure of playgrounds and libraries has 'disproportionately' affected the poorest families

The findings are from a new study investigating the impact of Covid-19 on family life and early childhood development by a team of researchers from five universities, including Oxford University.

The researchers said that the closure of playgrounds and libraries has 'disproportionately' affected the poorest children, and are calling for a one-off ‘baby boost’, a catch-up fund to enable local services to support families who have had a baby during or close to lockdown. 

More than 500 parents from across the UK of children under three years have taken part so far in the Social Distancing and Development Study (SDDS).

The study is investigating the impact of social distancing and lockdown on infants’ cognitive development, sleep, social interactions, screen-use and time spent outdoors.

The findings include:

  • 90 per cent of families reported an increase in enriching activities during lockdown, but increases were not spread equally across families.
  • During lockdown disadvantaged parents were less likely to engage in enriching activities.
  • Disadvantaged families spent less time doing activities that require outdoor space and access to books.
  • 75 per cent of parents reported that during lockdown their children spent more time than usual watching TV or playing with a tablet, but children from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly likely to have high daily screen use.

Parents were asked about time spent doing ‘enriching’ activities with their child, and amount of screen time, before and during lockdown.

Enriching activities included reading, playing, singing, one-to-one conversations, cooking, arts and crafts, exercise, gardening and shared outdoors time.

University of Oxford researcher, Alex Hendry, who led the first report to come out of the study, said, ‘Children depend on high-quality interactions to support all aspects of their development. It is heartening to see that most families have been managing to find time to talk, read and play with their babies during this critical time, even amongst everything else going on. But from what parents are telling us it is clear that during lockdown some babies have been missing out.’

The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s response to Covid-19.

The research aims to inform policy makers on how to cut the impact on children’s development and identify the best ways to support families during the coronavirus crisis.

Oxford Brookes University researcher Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez, who leads the SDSS project said, ‘While we know disadvantaged families often do not have access to the same opportunities for child development as their more well-off peers, these disadvantages were exacerbated by the UK lockdown. In particular, the closure of playgrounds and libraries has disproportionately impacted children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘In the event of continued local lockdowns, it is vital that disadvantaged families are given extra support to promote children’s early development. Access to communal outdoor spaces and shared resources such as libraries should only be restricted as a last resort.’

Sally Hogg, head of policy and campaigning at the Parent-Infant Foundation, added, ‘This research demonstrates, yet again, that babies in families from more disadvantaged communities have been impacted more by the Covid-19 crisis. The crisis has been difficult for most people, but has had a particular impact on families without the resources to buffer its impacts for their babies.

‘Sadly too many of our young children live in poverty, poor housing and without stimulating toys and books at home. These results show the impact that the closure of libraries, playgrounds and drop-in groups had for these children. National and local governments must hold these results in mind when making decisions about future lockdowns and families’ access to activities and support.'

The study, Not all babies are in the same boat: exploring how socioeconomic status, parental attitudes, and activities during UK Covid-19 lockdown affect early executive functions, is currently under peer review.

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