As an early childhood development specialist and licensed early childhood educator, my job is to provide a broad array of services for children ages birth through 3 who have special developmental needs. I work closely with families and children to help to facilitate development in order to go on to have productive school years and adult lives. I often go into classrooms, daycare centers and children's homes to work with them where they feel most comfortable.
When COVID-19 struck, the lives of both adults and children changed dramatically. Many were worried about how the changes — especially being isolated from family and friends — would affect child development. What I have found is that some of the changes present challenges for children and their adults, while others seem to hold exciting opportunities. I would like to share what I have noticed and how those with young children can accentuate the positive aspects of this strange time and minimize the potential challenges.
Opportunity alert! A typical pre-COVID day for many families involved a lot of rushing. We rushed to wake and dress the kids, made sure they got breakfast and brushed their teeth, and then we hustled them out the door to the babysitter's house or school. Even the evenings and weekends were packed with events and places to be.
While we likely miss our routine and all of the fun that comes with it, it's important to recognize the value of slowing down. Parents who are no longer working or working from home, where they can skip their commutes, for instance — have more time to spend with their kids. That time is adding up to great developmental benefits.
Parents can maximize this unusual time by setting a loose-but-reliable schedule, including mealtimes with their kids, time to play with their kids, and active outdoor time with their kids. The most important thing is spending time actively engaged with your child. As sad as it may seem to be missing friends, a connected and engaged adult is the most important element children need to keep their development on track. Other parents, close relatives, and siblings providing playful interactions and conversations stimulate development even further!
Caution! Of course, there are a lot of downsides to COVID-19 and the restrictions that come with it. One that I notice in my professional role is an increase in screen time. Kids under 2 years old should ideally have no screen time at all, if possible. Television, even age-appropriate "educational" T.V., and video games or other loud electronic toys can disrupt development, increase anxiety, disturb sleep, and inhibit creative thinking.
Rather than keeping the TV on all day, try flipping it on as a distraction for kids only when you must accomplish something important. For kids ages 0-3, computers and smart phones are best used only as a means for video communication with friends and family. And don't expect young kids to pay close attention or understand that the person on the screen is someone they know or who is relating to them.
Opportunity alert! While it is inconvenient, our putting our children's needs first can inspire us all to take the precautions we should. Small children especially should stay home as much as possible and visit only with a small group of trusted family and friends. While you attempt to teach social responsibility through hand washing and respiratory etiquette, it is not possible for most children to understand these concepts at a young age.
Mask wearing is appropriate only for those over the age of 2 and masks on others may be frightening to small children. (They get so much of their information from being able to see our faces. Not being able to see them can inspire intense anxiety and crying.) So take the needs of your child into consideration before taking them visiting. It will be better for them and for you.
Note that small children get most of their developmental cues from our faces, our touch, and the sounds of our voices. Be sure to provide your child with plenty of each, both now and as things return to the way they were before the pandemic.
Audra Prandini is an early childhood development specialist and licensed early childhood educator with Early Intervention and Children's Integrated Services.