The world has drastically changed over the past six months. It feels as though normal life has all but disappeared since March, with children moved from the classroom to their bedroom. The curriculum has moved from teacher-driven to parent-initiated in many circumstances, as our education system struggles to pivot to a virtual learning experience. Lessons originally pushed heavily in our schools as a part of the "hidden curricula" - topics such as diversity, inclusion, and healthy lifestyles - have been pushed aside, as most instructors grapple with communicating basic math and English-language arts lessons through Zoom and Google Classroom.
In a world that has been gripped with a life-changing health crisis and the explosion of racial injustice, teachers are not able to be there to help their students comprehend what is occurring all around them. As a result, our children may have a lot of questions about everything from why people are fighting one another, to why they have to stay so far away from their friends. These lessons need to be taught in this day-and-age by trusted adults that our youth see regularly, whether that be a parent, a caregiver, or a teacher or leader in a daycare setting.
In my experiences, seeing children around my neighborhood, one concept they don't understand is one that our general populous is continuing to learn and understand: social distancing. Since the beginning of this pandemic, we've seen and heard requests to stay six feet apart or remain at least a meter away from others. For adults, this is a much easier task. We understand the risks associated with this health crisis, we have a greater awareness of others and we have greater levels of self-control.
For a child? This is much more difficult.
Children are in the most critical stage of development, where they are developing a sense of self-awareness and are learning about the world through modeling, questioning, adventuring, and processing. Social distancing is a behavior that is foreign to children. They are used to the old behaviors, such as running up and hugging a friend, exploring wherever they want to go, and playing around without distancing in effect. In order to keep our children safe, as well as safeguard those around us, we need to help teach our children about the importance of social distancing and still make it "kid-friendly".
Tip 1: Explain what's happening.
A lot of children right now likely have questions about COVID-19 or what is happening in their world. They see the markers on the ground. They see people wearing masks. They see people staying a far distance from each other. And this may seem foreign or confusing to them...which may lead to questioning. Curiosity during this crisis is important...so don't be afraid to answer their questions!
However, make sure you make your explanation understandable to a child so that they know what is happening. Let's say, for example, your child sees two people standing six feet apart in the grocery store, and asks you on the way home why they didn't want to be next to one another. You can tell your child - in this case - they are trying to make sure they don't get their friends sick. You don't need to explain what Coronavirus is and what it does - this may be too complex or too much information for your child to process. Rather, explain to them in general terms that people are staying six feet away, in order to keep each other healthy. This helps your child to understand why people are exhibiting this behavior, as well as opening up further questioning and investigation.
Tip 2: Model the right behaviors.
Modeling is practiced by children ALL THE TIME as a means of learning new behaviors. Social Learning Theory says that a child will see behaviors displayed by adults or other trusted people and will model those same behaviors in similar environments. For instance, if they see two people fighting and arguing with one another regularly, the child is more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors when they don't get what they want.
So what does this mean for social distancing? It simply means that when you are with your child, or when you are taking care of or supervising a child, you need to display the same behaviors that you want them to exhibit. (NOTE: You may need to help children understand that it is okay for them to stay close to their brothers, sisters, or family.) When you see a marker on the ground at a supermarket, have your family stand together on the marker and tell your children to stay with you. Don't move off the line, because then they may see these markers as irrelevant. When a child is under your supervision at a daycare center, stay six feet away (when possible) and make it fun! (See next section for more on this one.) If you - the parent or caregiver - demonstrates the right behaviors, your child will be more likely to express them too.
Tip 3: Make learning fun!
Studies show that children who are engaged in and have fun learning will be more likely to learn from the experience than those who are disconnected. Despite the given circumstances, we don't need to make learning about social distancing boring and dull - it'll make children walk away dissatisfied and they may not remember what they had just been taught.
There are plenty of great resources online right now with games and activities you can implement - whether at home, at school, at a childcare center, or elsewhere - that encourage social distancing and make it fun for youth. One such resource is Asphalt Green, where they have an entire index of simple and engaging activities for children to play, which encourages youth to stay six feet away and still have a memorable experience. Further, you can play games with children and give them a space to play within that is well-defined and keeps youth separated (using a poly dot or a hula-hoop for instance).
These are just a few tips to help your child or youth make sense of social distancing and why it is important. By teaching our youth to look out for each other and make safe and healthy choices, we can impress on them a positive attitude and ensure they are still engaged in learning and understanding in such a critical period of their lives.