Seattle's Child

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COVID and playtime

The pandemic made toddler social time challenging in all new ways. (Shutterstock)

Helping toddlers play, learn and socialize in a masked-up world

Parents and educators are learning new ways to ensure little ones get the play they need. 

COVID completely upended our communities. Togetherness, once a balm, became a risk. Separation, once a snub, became a gesture of love. That was a tough transition for older kids and adults. But what has it been like for toddlers? How are families coping with socializing young kids in a continuing pandemic?

Bo Leong, the parent group manager at Families of Color Seattle and parent to twin toddler boys, believes that the word we are all looking for is “pivot.” 

Not just physical pivoting,” Bo says, referring to the pandemic retreat into the home, “but psychological, social, even cognitive pivoting as a parent.”

COVID: Kids take it in stride

“We tell our kids, ‘Go out and play,’ but during a pandemic there are some added steps,” Bo says. Wear a mask, wash your hands, be aware of how close you are to other people. For adults, these changes might serve as foreboding reminders of the dangers our children face. But to young kids, they register as simply another milestone in their learning lives, not wildly different from their pivot away from diapers, or learning that toilets need flushing. 

Turns out toddlers are toddlers, even during a pandemic. Lindsey Denault, toddler class chair at Phinney Neighborhood Preschool Co-op, says when her 2-year-old son, Ben, returned to preschool it was, well, pretty normal. “Parents were all learning how to socialize again, and the kids were like, ‘This is great! Let’s go.’ ” 

Lindsey, who also has a 4-year-old daughter, Nora, reports that the toddler class is navigating standard social 2-year-old challenges, pandemic or no pandemic: toy sharing, waiting for turns and age-appropriate independence from parents.

Of course, COVID complicated early social development in some ways. For example, Nicolette Riggins, founder and head teacher of north Seattle’s Chrysalis Forest School, says, “It’s typical for young kids to have speech impediments. I didn’t realize how much I relied on lip-reading until everyone was wearing a mask.” 

“Kids get frustrated when they have a clear idea of what they’re trying to communicate with me and it isn’t getting through.”

Heather Collins, whose 4-year-old daughter M attends Chrysalis, experienced that frustration firsthand. “M tends to be quiet, and when you add a mask, it makes it hard for her to be understood.”

As a teacher, Nicolette pivoted. She taught her students to draw pictures of their feelings and integrated sign language into her curriculum so they could sign for basic needs like food, water, bathroom and “stop.” 

Heather says, “M is a better human, getting that interaction with other kids.”

Creative solutions

In the north Seattle co-op where Bo’s twins attend preschool, their teacher utilizes gestures and call-and-response auditory cues, as well as stimulating multisensory pretend play, like imagining the smell of chocolate chip cookies in the classroom. These creative solutions seek to enhance both the social growth of the kids and the inclusion and equity of the class as a whole.

In a conversation about socializing children, it’s easy to zoom in on individual social skills as parents see them: Can my child share? Can my child wait? Can my child use their words? Of course, those skills are important. But now more than ever, we must also zoom out, recognize our children’s social growth as an act of community care, and cultivate their early understanding of the beauty of inclusion and diversity.

Bo says a key element of pandemic navigation is commitment to community and to modeling behavior. “It’s not just about the pandemic, but about how the pandemic circles around culture, race, identity, values, socioeconomic status.” 

“That’s what’s beautiful about these conversations. These families are growing together in a loving community.”

Supporting parents through COVID

In 2021, FOCS parent educators for Waddlers (children 6 months to 3 years old) supported 77 families through issues like finding work-life balance, parenting kids of different ages and coping with the mental health challenges of the pandemic. Another FOCS group, the Redmond Black Mothers affinity group, supports its members through facilitated discussions about issues like Black hair and beauty, the impact of systemic racism on children, Black feminism, anti-bias and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Maybe our pandemic toddlers didn’t get Gymboree music classes, or a trip to Disneyland, or the chance to share snacks in new friends’ houses. But I would argue that they — and we — are still learning invaluable socialization: We are learning to communicate in new ways. We’re learning that our personal choices, like wearing a mask, show love to the people around us. 

And we’re learning that even upended communities can reach across loving distance and connect. 

About the Author

Katie Anthony