HuffPost UK reader Laurie asked: “Is it safe for children to play outside together at recess and on equipment?”
With most young children now back at school across the UK, some parents are worried about the risks as their kids interact closely with others.
After all, we’ve been told touching infected surfaces and close contact interactions can spread the virus – and we know children aren’t as hot on hand-washing and personal space as adults.
But the reality is, there’s not much to be concerned about as far as outdoor playtime goes, say scientists – whether in a park or on the school playground.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, children are less likely to transmit the virus than adults, says professor Sarah Lewis, an expert in epidemiology at the University of Bristol. Previous studies have shown 1-5% of diagnosed Covid-19 cases occur in children, who tend to be asymptomatic. In young children (aged four to 11), evidence points to a reduced risk of becoming sick with the virus and spreading it.
A Public Health England study of school outbreaks in June found that out of more than one million children attending pre-school and primary school, only 70 children were affected. Other global studies reinforce this. One from South Korea suggested kids under 10 spread the virus far less often than adults do. Another from Singapore concluded the risk of Covid-19 transmission among children in schools, especially pre-schools, is likely to be low.
It’s worth noting that children can still spread the virus to adults – but again, the risk does appear to be low. During the first wave, living with children of any age was not associated with an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection or severe outcomes from Covid-19, a study in the BMJ found, compared with not living with children. However during the second wave, when schools had reopened, there was a slightly increased risk of infection and hospital admission for adults.
We also know that outdoor transmission “very rarely occurs”, says Prof Lewis. “The only documented occurrences of this are at outdoor events which included an indoor element,” she explains. More transmissions occur inside, she notes. “In terms of viral transmission, it is very safe for children to play together outside.”
Factors such as the wind, fresh air and sunshine all help to disperse the virus.
“For children, risk from the virus is very low, but harm from stopping them from playing together is potentially high,” says Prof Lewis. “It is essential for both their mental and physical health that children are allowed to play together.”
What about touching shared apparatus, like swings, slides and roundabouts at the local park? Should you wipe them down beforehand? Well, while a lot of focus has been placed on hand sanitising, washing and wiping during the pandemic, we now know that infection via fomites – touching infected surfaces and then touching your mouth or nose – is probably not as big a risk as first thought.
Studies back this up. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads”. That said, washing hands is still good practice and children should be encouraged to do this when they get home. If you’d feel more comfortable, it won’t hurt to wipe apparatus down before and after your child has used it.
There is some evidence emerging that a small number of children are displaying symptoms of long Covid, months after first becoming sick. Data estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest five weeks after testing positive for Covid-19, 15% of secondary school children and 13% of under-12s are still struggling with symptoms.
Still, professor Allyson Pollock, clinical professor of public health at the University of Newcastle, says parents “should not be concerned” about their children playing in the park and on playgrounds at school.
“They should encourage their children to go and play outside with their friends. The risk of transmission for anybody, whether they’re an adult or a child, is absolutely negligible outdoors – and even less for young children.
“Parents should feel very comfortable about their children playing in the playground and playing outdoors with their friends – and especially now ... The cases are falling so low, the risks are infinitesimal.”
Government guidance states parents, guardians or carers can take children to a playground for exercise, but they can’t socialise with other people while there and social distancing guidelines should be followed.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.