COVID-19: The importance of young children making virtual connections
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with each other, because right now, all of the family remain in one social space – our homes.
We’ve moved from one extreme to the other. From helicopter parenting – hovering and organising each detail of our young children’s scheduled lives – to being at home with all our children, 24/7. Lockdown has caused some parents who can afford it to self-isolate and work from hotels, to avoid the distractions their young children create.
For the majority, lockdown has meant many parents are homeschooling, with varied websites offering advice, and ways to best cater for ensuring learning continuity.
There’s concern that children are spending too much time on screens, with some reports indicating we need to rethink screen-time. Many of these concerns are based on children over the age of 10, or what adults want for their young children.
However, there’s been little in the media about what young children think they’re missing out on, what they want, and how we can support young children’s peer interactions during lockdown.
“When children have a friend, they learn about themselves and others with friends, there are new possibilities for being and becoming together.”
In a recent virtual playdate, one mother overheard her seven-year-old say: “I wish we could see each other at school and on playdates.” Children are grieving for the loss of their past lives. Although in lockdown, it’s still important to encourage children to interact socially.
So, here are some reasons why it’s important for children to stay in touch with their friends during lockdown, and ways parents can support their children with virtual playdates. We can reach a happy consensus where both children and parents can benefit from productive virtual playdates.
Studies indicate that children who play together learn from, and with, each other. The learning goes beyond social interactional skills such as sharing, taking turns, and respecting others’ opinions.
Research has found that children form affective connections, including using and showing empathy, collaborating, and negotiating risky play, also helping each other to develop academic skills through remembering past episodes, and developing mathematical and language games together. Children propose “what if” and “as if” moments that are accepted and built together, or not accepted, which may lead to frustration, sadness and exclusion – the darker side of friendship.
We can reach a happy consensus where both children and parents can benefit from productive virtual playdates.
Yet, all these experiences contribute to each child’s learning and development. From the perspective of children, friendships provide moments of being together, where secrets, stories and interests are shared. Friends learn collectively and support each other in varied ways. All of the learning and development together with friends is missing while in lockdown.
Children need a supportive learning environment (home, school, neighbourhood) to enhance social interactions and connections with peers. For children to build and maintain their friendships, they need to:
Establish connections. Adults are in a powerful position to encourage their children to build close bonds, inside and outside of school. In turn, adults also have an important role in supporting children being together with their friends.
Accept-build. Once friendships have been established, or children say, “We are friends” or make comments such as, “I like playing with…” or “I miss…”, parents can begin to set in motion playdates with the chosen friend or friends. Although, at the moment it’s not possible to have a friend over or meet at a park, which is why virtual playdates are so important.
A playdate is offering an invitation to develop children’s peer relations in the context of a family (home) setting or other beyond school. The process of establishing virtual playdates requires adults to create conditions for a playdate to occur so the children can interact socially online. Parents need to remember playdates are for children, and there’s no requirement for the parent to be friends with the child’s parents (although sometimes this does help).
First establish who the child would like to invite, and whether or not the child’s parents/carer are OK to establish a playdate time.
Safeguard the connection by having a password-protected meeting, for example via FaceTime or WhatsApp programs.
Internet safety – Talk to the child about internet safety, and what to do if anyone else comes in on the conversation/activity.
Establish rules with children about exploring sites and not engaging with others (setting up parental controls are important here).
Set up a safe space in the home, somewhere the child can move around and become noisy and animated, and have activities at hand (drawing implements, paper etc).
Time for a playdate – This needs to suit both sets of parents and children. Agreed time limits can be set — the first playdate could be short; when successful, the time can be extended. This will also depend on the connection children have with each other, and the more practical concerns such as the internet connection.
Content of playdate – Initially, children may need help to decide on what to do together; this will depend on children’s own interests. For example, children can share schoolwork, dance, draw, play together, build Lego, talk about their favourite shows, or read with a celebrity.
Remember, this time is for children to rejoice about being together in a virtual space.
Vigilance – While parents aren’t part of the playdate, they can monitor children’s conversations.
Repetition of playdates is important. Maintaining regular contact will help children stay connected with each other.
Virtual playdates in times of COVID-19 provide a space for children to build on common knowledge about the world they’re now living in.
Parental support for children is very important for building friendships in both the virtual and real worlds. As we state in our latest research, remembering that “when children have a friend, they learn about themselves and others with friends, there are new possibilities for being and becoming together”.