As uncertainty grows over various US states reopening due to COVID-19 surges, parents are worrying about the effects on their kids. Although the focus has been on whether schools will reopen or not, younger children and toddlers might feel the impact, too. What impact will social isolation have on child development?
One of the big names bringing up this point? None other than celebrity royal Meghan Markle, currently hunkered down with Prince Harry and her toddler son, Archie, at Tyler Perry’s home in Los Angeles. Markle has expressed consternation over the pandemic’s impact on their child.
“Meghan said Archie needs to learn emotional and social skills by being around other young children, something he can’t do with adults,” reported the Daily Mail. “’Meghan said ideally they (she and Archie) would be in a baby group class that met in person a couple of times a week.”
Is There Real Reason to Worry?
The science and expert opinions about isolation and toddler development are mixed, probably because these shutdowns are so novel and unprecedented. Many childhood professionals think the concern is overblown.
“I totally hear the parent’s concerns, and I think this is a stressful time for everybody, so it’s normal to be concerned,” Jen Blair, a clinical psychologist, told Business Insider. “But I think kids are way more resilient than we give them credit for.”
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., a pediatrician and early-childhood development expert at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, agrees. “If we weren’t, we would have gone extinct like the dinosaurs. We wouldn’t be able to survive because the environment is always changing,” he told the New York Times.
But with playgroups canceled and playgrounds closed, longer shutdown stints of three to four months might become, in clinical psychologist Mary Alvord’s words, “an abnormal situation.” And the kids might still be ok, but the parents suffer with worry and stress.
“I think it’s really important for parents not to catastrophize and panic,” Dr. Seth Pollack told the New York Times. “There’s no evidence that even a few months of social distancing is going to have a long-term effect on children’s development.”
Toddlers Engage In Different Types of Play
Unlike older children, toddlers run a play spectrum which increases as they age. According to Healthy Families, there are five types of “toddler play”:
- Solitary Play
This is when your toddler plays alone. All children like solitary play at times.
- Parallel Play
This is when your toddler plays beside another child without interacting. Your toddler will observe the other child and often imitate what they do. Toddlers enjoy parallel play.
- Imitative Play
This is when your toddler and another child copy each other. One toddler starts to jump and soon they are both jumping. Or you are folding clothes and your toddler tries to do the same.
- Social Bids
This is the first step toward having fun with others. Well before the age of 24 months, your toddler will offer toys, looks, or words to other children. It’s your toddler’s way of communicating.
- Cooperative Play
As your toddler gets older, he or she will start to play with other children. They may work together to build a block village or take stuffed animals to the doctor. Many children are not ready for this kind of play until they are 36 months of age or older.
If the toddler has a sibling, they’ll practice these types of play with a brother or sister. If not, you might need to step in and simply play with your toddler more often during these isolating times. Even regular social engagement (no need for baby talk) makes a big difference for a toddler.
Science Daily points to a study by Flinders University that suggests while school and playground closures have had significant impacts on children, what happens once we actually open up is more important.
“As children return to school, and life starts to resume as it did pre-COVID-19, focus and attention to children’s opportunities for play — and their ability to exercise reasonable ‘agency’ during this time of significant transition — are two key aspects that can support their wellbeing during this difficult time,” says lead author Jennifer Fane.