As a child, I used to create dandelion soup, grass seed porridge, and potions made from ingredients I snaffled from the back of our pantry shelf.
Most of these concoctions were served up to relatives, who dutifully pretended to eat them with lots of appreciative ‘mmm’ sounds. And some – such as jars of congealed gloop – were even proudly taken to primary school for presentations on ‘my weekend’.
But nowadays, children aren’t simply making their own food and drink.
They are playing at being scientists, working on a ‘cure’ for coronavirus. Flower petals are carefully gathered and mixed with water to create the base for a vaccine. Then they throw in a pinch of soil and, hey presto, it’s ready for clinical trials on toys.
Now academics have been studying this new form of ‘corona play’ to try to understand how youngsters are making sense of the scary world around them.
They are also creating a pandemic play archive in partnership with the Museum of English Rural Life. It will feature written descriptions, children’s drawings and photos.
Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at Reading University, is leading the archive project.
She recently told The Sunday Times about her own sons’ invented games inspired by Covid-19.
“We had a paddling pool in the garden and they filled it with coloured balls and sat on and squashed the red ones,” said Helen.
“Then they took some chalk and drew red virus shapes on the pavement outside my house, in a kind of hopscotch. They did it in the street so other kids could join in playing ‘splat the virus’.”
Parents have observed all sorts of coronavirus safety routines emerging in children’s play.
Dolls have had their mouths taped up to resemble face masks and have had their hands scrubbed. Teddies have been socially distanced.
And one child even turned away two toys from a tea party because of the rule of six.
Just as the Great Plague spawned the classic game, ring a ring ‘o roses, Covid-19 has given birth to ‘corona tag’ (if you get within one metre of another person, you’re out).
And that other staple of childhood play – doctors and nurses – has also been given a pandemic spin.
Child medics have been examining their toys with stethoscopes and telling them, ‘Sorry, you’ve got coronavirus. You might die’.
So should parents be worried if their children seem to be taking this play-acting too far?
Experts say it is just a normal way for them to work through their emotions and stresses. While adults tend to talk about their own worries, young children in particular can’t vocalise theirs.
They either respond through their behaviour – such as clinginess, tantrums or changes to sleep and toileting patterns – or they turn to creative play. It’s a coping mechanism.
Play has also had to adapt in other ways on the back of the pandemic. During the first national lockdown, public play areas were shut and families were told to ‘stay at home’.
Two other academics, Alison Stenning and Wendy Russell, have been studying the impact on outdoor play, particularly for children without access to private gardens.
They found some streets – temporarily free of heavy traffic – were reclaimed for children’s play. Activities became hyper-local.
There were chalk markings on roads and pavements, rainbow trails, bug hunts, toy and book swaps, and games of kerby, hula-hooping and football.
And youngsters haven’t just been expressing themselves through games.
Staffordshire University psychologists are looking at how children have been affected by the pandemic by studying their drawings.
Fear, loss, isolation from friends or disruption to school work can all manifest themselves in pictures. At its most basic, the virus can also be represented by drawing a monster.
It will be fascinating to see the results of their research.
Whether it’s mixing up pretend medicine or obscuring a smiley face with a mask, our children are capturing this unique moment in history.
Time for a game of corona tag? You’re it.