As a parent, I’m lucky that my 3-year-old son’s preschool has been open, at reduced hours, since August.
At school, my son has a best friend, whom I’ll call Alex. Last month, Alex broke his leg and was out of school for several weeks. My son was upset, saying Alex was his only friend at school and he wouldn’t play with anyone else.
Since Alex had a birthday while he was out of school, I took my son over to drop off a present and have a socially distanced visit in the front yard. My son had been talking non-stop about how much he missed playing with Alex, but when he saw him, he didn’t say a word to him. The boys didn’t play and barely talked to each other the entire time.
Even though my son only spent a few weeks away from his friend, it was hard for him to reconnect.
Millions of kids who have been out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic will go through similar experiences when schools reopen.
I spoke to some experts who agreed that this reintegration into a social setting is likely to be a challenge for young kids but stressed that kids are resilient and can pick up social skills quickly. They also offered tips for how to do things now to help kids prepare for eventual in-person school or in-person playdates.
“(A) lot of parents are scared that with missing preschool, that’s a measurable fraction of kids’ lives that they haven’t had contact with peers, but I’m not worried about that,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a child psychologist and author of “Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.” “They’ll figure it out when they get together. There may be some nervousness, or some extra boisterousness, but they’ll figure it out.”
Kennedy-Moore and other experts offered the following tips to help kids prepare for this transition back to in-person socializing or school, whenever that happens.
Go to Outdoor Playdates
If you feel comfortable with it, you can arrange for a distanced playdate at an outdoor park or backyard and still help kids reap the benefits of socializing, said Michele Borba, a child psychologist and author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.”
“So maybe they’re not playing side-by-side, but they’re still modeling and mimicking each other,” she said. “For example, if they’re playing soccer, you can show them how to kick a ball and share.”
Even if you don’t meet a friend at the park, you can teach your kids how to socialize just by looking at other kids, Borba said.
“Little ones learn a lot by showing and pointing out, so you can say, ‘look at how that boy is sharing, that boy is waving to the other friend,’” she said. “Those skills you used to be able to model side-by-side, you can still show. Then as a parent, you can model those at home.”
Have Virtual Playdates
If you aren’t comfortable doing outdoor playdates, Borba said there are also ways to make virtual playdates beneficial.
“You can have three or four kids doing the same thing at their own homes, so they can follow each other,” she said. “Maybe take turns where each time a different parent takes the lead, so one time a parent will read a story, or do some exercises, or all do playdough at the same time. They’ll see each other and that alone can be comforting.”
If you do this, Borba suggested making it a routine, for example, at 3 p.m. every day, and to try to be creative with activities.
“So it’s something a kid looks forward to, whether it’s coloring together, or playing instruments together,” she said. “The concept of being together can be comforting to a child and something to look forward to.”
If a child hasn’t seen another peer in a long time and you’re reintroducing him or her to the social scene, kids may shy away, and that’s ok .... That doesn’t mean there’s regression, or that they will not be able to form healthy relationships. They just need some warm-up and practice.Janine Domingues, clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute
Then, during those virtual sessions, help your kids practice those social skills.
“Teach them to smile, say hello, ask, ‘What’s your name? Can you play?’” Borba said.
But remember to have realistic expectations for virtual playdates, said Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
“Even if it’s a 5-minute or 10-minute remote playdate where they’re just showing each other toys, sharing an experience, that’s a success,” she said.
Play with Your Kids at Home
If there are no kids to connect with and no siblings at home, parents can still help their kids practice social skills by modeling interactions, Domingues said.
“Parents can create a space where they’re playing with their child, get to their level, and follow their lead, but also welcome them to play with you, join your play, and that creates that skill,” she said.
Kids at 3 and 4 years old play a lot by mimicking each other, so you can mimic your child’s play, and then invite them to follow you as you play with a toy, she said.
“Also sharing toys, waiting your turn, can be recreated at home,” she said.
Practice for a First Playdate or Day of School
Helping kids act out a playdate or the first day of school is a great way to get them ready for that first social interaction, said Kennedy-Moore.
“Each child is so different, so try to think what his biggest worry is,” she said. “Then help him think through what to say, what to do, will he like me, and then practice. If you practice, ask, ‘what’s the first thing you can do? If you’re going to a birthday party, maybe you’ll practice walking in and saying, here’s the present.’ That alleviates the anxiety.”
Kennedy-Moore said if you can anticipate your child’s biggest concern, you can role play that at home using your dog, puppets, or other family members.
“Have child knock on the door, and say, ‘what are you going to say to me?’” she said.
If a kid is rejoining a school, she said you should visit multiple times, if possible, before starting. Introduce them to the teachers, and maybe find one friend the child will know before the start.
“If you can find one child he knows and feels secure with, he’s better off, versus walking in and not knowing anyone,” she said.
Also, remember to have realistic expectations, Domingues said.
“If a child hasn’t seen another peer in a long time and you’re reintroducing him or her to the social scene, kids may shy away, and that’s ok,” she said. “That doesn’t mean there’s regression, or that they will not be able to form healthy relationships. They just need some warm-up and practice.”