Managing social distancing with young children

Our experts' advice on social distancing with children under 6.

In the unprecedented moment of COVID-19, families raising young children are facing much anxiety and uncertainty. What do kids need from us in this moment, and how can we give it to them? Early childhood expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige and pediatrician Dr. Mark Bertin discussed these questions and more in our most recent Action Network Live! event. Here we offer you a few takeaways from this event which scratch the surface of this important conversation, and we highly recommend tuning into the whole recording here.

One important thing to note, said Mark, is that in a time of such uncertainty and upheaval, “there is no piece of advice that that will apply to every family.” Instead, he and Nancy offered a few key concepts that can help guide you through this challenging, uncertain time.


Structure, consistency, and relationships are key.

Nancy and Mark acknowledged the uncertainty of this time for kids and adults alike – none of us “know” what the right thing to do is in an unprecedented situation. Luckily, kids don’t need us to be perfect; they need us to be present. “Relationships are foundational,” said Mark. “Even among all the difficult things we all need to do and manage right now, there’s an opportunity to feed your family relationships — finding time to play, to support, to just be with.”

As you plan your days, intentionally make space for things that help kids thrive, like play time, family time, and time outside. It’s both the thing itself and the consistency of the thing that makes a difference here: reading a book together after dinner is great, and it’s even better when it happens every day. (This routine, by the way, is also great for adults!)

“We can come back to what keeps kids resilient first,” said Mark, “and I think a lot of that has to do with consistency, routines, relationships, and being there with them. That’s what our kids are looking for from us, that kind of stability in this time.”


Make space for feelings.

Both Nancy and Mark agreed: Shield your kids from scary news. Developmentally, young children just can’t process or understand what’s happening. But no matter how good you are at keeping the news off til they’re in bed, kids will almost certainly pick up that something feels weird and bad. Their routines are changing, they can’t see their friends – they’re going to ask questions! When they do, answer them in a way that is simple, true, and grounded in right now. For instance, kids might ask “am I safe?” It’s important to know, said Mark, that they really mean “am I safe right now?”

As much as you can, offer an action that can help your child work through their feelings. For instance, if your child asks about his grandparents, you might say, “We can’t see Grandma right now. I know you miss her a lot, and I do too. How about you draw a picture for her while I cook dinner, and we can mail it tomorrow?”


Schedule play time.

“It’s primarily through play that children find that deep inner space where they understand what’s happening,” said Nancy. “They’re making sense of their experience through play, and it’s a tremendous resource.”

In addition to being foundational for healthy development and resilience, imaginative, kid-driven, deep play can keep kids engaged and entertained for long stretches of time. It can be challenging at first, especially with very young children or kids who aren’t used to getting long periods of unstructured activity, so Mark suggests using structure to help support kids as they build their “play skills.” “You can even set a timer,” he said, or if your child was in pre-K before quarantine, borrow the classroom play schedule. The more kids play on their own, the better at it they are, and the longer they can do it.

To help facilitate self-directed play, Nancy suggests leaving open-ended play objects like paper and crayons, dolls, blocks, and dress-up clothes in easily-accessible places. “If we give them the right materials, they’re gonna do this,” she says. “They’re gonna take off. They might just need some scaffolding to do it.”


Nourish your child’s relationships.

Kids are social creatures, and this is a hard time for them to be away from their friends and loved ones. If your children do have the option of connecting with friends and family on video chat, both Mark and Nancy say that’s a great thing to do. “I’m feeling absolutely sure about using video chats to keep relationships going,” said Nancy, who speaks to her own six grandchildren that way. “It’s a lot better than no connection at all, and it’s what we’ve got to use right now.”

Rather than expecting your child to engage in a long video conversation, Nancy suggests having grandparents or other loved ones “dropping in” on video for a fixed period, maybe an hour or so, and letting kids engage on their own terms. “It’s really about presence,” she said. “They know Grandma’s there if they want to say hi.”

Quarantine can be especially challenging for kids without siblings. For them, or any child who deeply misses their friends or loved ones, Nancy suggests creating a photo box. Decorate a box with your child, and fill it with photos of the people she loves. Go to the box periodically, take out photos, and talk about the people in them: “Why we love them, what we did with them, events we were at with them – anything to keep supporting these loving relationships.”


Use screens mindfully.

“Screens are helpful,” Nancy said. But the key is to know what screens are good for – and what they’re not. “[Screens] do distract kids and they do entertain them, [but] what children get out of looking at screens is something outside of themselves. It doesn’t provide them the same sort of inner resource that play does.”

It’s also important to keep limits in place, said Mark, even if they are more flexible than they normally would be. “We’re all gonna bend now, and that’s fine, and no one should judge anyone for that,” he said. “At the same time, I sometimes find that screen limits are somewhat a relief to kids.” Nancy agreed: the constant question of “Can I use a screen? Now? Can I now?” becomes an “unhealthy tension.” Remember: kids love to know what to expect!

As you think about how to incorporate screen use into your family’s day, keep the AAP’s screen time guidelines in mind: they recommend no screens for children under 18 months, and an hour a day or less for children 2 to 5. Choose non-commercial, non-violent media that have stories that are meaningful to kids, and make sure your children know that there’s a clear beginning and end time – for example, choosing a 30 minute block in the afternoon to be nature documentary time. (Consider scheduling some unstructured play time after, so kids can play out everything they’ve learned about nature!)

This resource is part of our series on navigating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events!