Worried for kid's social development amid pandemic? Experts say routine can help - InfoNews

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Worried for kid's social development amid pandemic? Experts say routine can help

Playground with COVID-19 warning sign in Kingston, Ontario, on Tuesday March 24, 2020. Now that playgrounds, daycares, schools and after-school programs have shut down nationwide in an effort to quell the spread of COVID-19, Justin Kinch is one of many Canadian parents concerned for how that will affect his children's social development.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg
April 22, 2020 - 9:00 PM

Justin Kinch would spend his pre-pandemic evenings taking his two young children to local parks in his neighbourhood, introducing them to new cultures and giving them opportunities to play and interact with plenty of other kids.

The Toronto father wanted to make sure six-year-old Francis and four-year-old Amelia were developing inclusive social skills.

But now that playgrounds, daycare centres, schools and after-school programs have shut down nationwide in an effort to quell the spread of COVID-19, Kinch is one of many Canadian parents concerned for his children's social development.

"Other than their education, it's the one thing I'm most worried about," Kinch said. "School will be fine, their education will be planned around this having happened but the social stuff that they're missing, you can't replace it.

"And this is a very key time in their lives ... when they're supposed to be developing connections. I can't help wonder how this will play out for them long term."

Caron Irwin, a child life specialist and founder of the Toronto-based consulting service Roo Parenting, says the ages between three and six are especially important for a child's social and emotional development, with school and daycare having major roles in those areas.

Early play-based learning programs can be beneficial in a number of ways, she said, including exposing children to a wide range of people and adding routine to their lives.

"Having more exposure to a variety of different adults as well as children gives them different examples of how to interact and speak and respond, and that's a huge bonus," Irwin said. "And then the consistency, that gives kids comfort and helps them be successful."

Irwin said lack of routine and limited socialization may cause young children to regress in areas like potty training, speech development and eating and sleeping habits. Irwin, herself a mother of three, said she has even noticed some regression in her own toddler, who just turned three last week.

But young kids are highly adaptable and constantly developing. So it can be easy to get back on track by implementing a stronger routine, Irwin said.

She suggests parents create "daily rituals," such as starting every day with a joke and reading a story together at night. Incorporating different kinds of play — structured forms of craft time and free play, for example — can also help.

"We might have to be a bit more creative in how we can create control in this new world that they're experiencing," Irwin said. "Having those rituals creates that control that kids are craving, which might help them get back on track with the skills they have regressed in."

Dr. Cassandra White, the owner of Calgary Child Psychology Group and director of Rocky Mountain Psychological Services, said a lack in routine can also cause anxiety in young children.

Kids likely won't show anxiety the same way adults do, however, and White said things like acting out and clinginess could be signs they're not handling their situation well.

"When we don't have predictability in our routines and things are disrupted, it makes us all feel unsure. And our brain reads that as unsafe," White said.

"Kids may not be as anxious about things as adults, because we know the bigger picture of what's going on in the world, but on the other hand, (they know) that their routines are disrupted, and that makes them feel unsettled and unsure."

For parents operating in a work-from-home pandemic world, providing the kind of social stimulation children need can be tough.

White suggests carving out moments of the day — even just 15-minute intervals — where parents can focus on their children and play and communicate with them.

"That way (parents) feel like they've got that one-on-one time and the child will feel that too," said White. "Then the parent can focus on something else without feeling guilty if they say: 'Just a minute,' or 'I can't do that with you right now.'

"Essentially if a parent knows they can spend time focused on the child and not trying to multitask, then the parent will feel calmer about it, and the child will feel calmer."

While the pandemic has forced adults to find virtual replacements for their social needs — like Zoom parties and regular FaceTime chats — White and Irwin say those methods can also apply to children.

Screen time should still be used in moderation, Irwin said, but having grandparents video chatting with kids can be a "beneficial experience." She suggests streaming the video chat from a cell phone to a television for younger children who likely are more interested in the phone itself than who's on the screen.

"That might work better because there's less distraction and stimulation," she said. "And it helps achieve the goal of having that serve-and-return conversation that you want."

White said setting up virtual play dates can be another unique way to provide children with much-needed socialization — even if they're not doing much talking.

"Kids are less likely to focus all their social interactions on speech, so they might need some support from parents to engage," she said. "But I think it's a great way for them to have some kind of connection."

Kinch has found some positives in those social replacements.

His daughter FaceTimes his parents in Halifax daily, sometimes setting up the iPad in the living room to let her grandmother watch her play with her toys. His son, meanwhile, has started playing video games online with the kid of Kinch's childhood friend in Nova Scotia, allowing Kinch to reconnect with his old pal.

Kinch, who has custody of his children during the week while their mother takes them on weekends, also lives with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Having three kids together helps, he said, but it's not the same.

"They're used to (socializing with) all their classmates, all the kids from aftercare, all the kids in the park. Everything we relied on to be social took place outside of our home," Kinch said. "Now we go for walks to unwind and see the other kids in the neighbourhood and all we can do is just wave from across the street.

"But we have to do what we can to wring out every ounce of human connectivity until this is over."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2020.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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