Do grown-ups play pretend?

Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, explores ways in which adults benefit from using their imaginations, just as children do.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD

Alyssa Meuwissen

Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books are favorites in our household. Willems has a knack for addressing both children and the adults who are reading to them. In I’m a Frog, Piggie teaches her friend Gerald about imaginative play. “You can just go out and pretend to be something you are not!?” Gerald asks in disbelief. Piggie replies, “Sure. Everyone pretends.” “Even grown-up people?” asks Gerald. Piggie’s answer: “All the time.”

Maybe Piggie is referring to imposter syndrome or the pressure that many adults feel to “fake it till we make it.” But given that we’re in a cultural moment where cosplay, live-action role playing (or LARPing), and Dungeons & Dragons are enjoying a surge in popularity, I also wonder about taking Piggie’s statement literally: we “grown-up people” really do enjoy playing pretend.

Maybe you’ve never been to a comic con, and you haven’t put on a costume since you gave up trick-or-treating. But I’d argue that the majority of what adults do for entertainment still engages our imagination. Think about the types of entertainment you enjoy. Do you look forward to a regular game night? Do you like to curl up with a good book? Which are your favorite movies and TV shows? Why do you like these forms of recreation? I asked friends and coworkers what they look for in a book, movie, or TV show. They answered:

  • To escape my day-to-day
  • To travel and have adventures
  • To watch people use skills I don’t have
  • To understand other people and why they are the way they are
  • To learn about how the world works
  • To laugh

Media fire our imagination and tap into humans’ connection to stories. A baking show allows us to try on the idea of being a baker, even if we rarely turn on the oven. A character-driven novel helps us empathize with people who are different from ourselves. A superhero movie gives us the chance to escape the mundane and experience feeling powerful. These are all strikingly similar to the reasons why children play.

A person wearing bracelets and a yellow sweater chooses a book from a row of books on a shelf
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSed, writes in the journal of the American Association of Pediatrics:

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.

I think that we adults turn to our favorite forms of entertainment for similar benefits.

The benefits of play

We know a lot about the importance of play in childhood. Fred Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” I remember reading about the various functions of play in my undergraduate textbook. At the time, I was skeptical; I couldn’t remember engaging in play as a child that specifically addressed social-emotional needs. But as an adult, I’ve often thought back to those functions of play as I watched the children around me. Having fun is certainly part of play. But play offers other important benefits, including: 

  • Helping children master anxieties and conflicts;
  • Allowing children to practice skills like saying “hi” and making friends
  • Giving children a chance to be “in charge”; they may pretend to be a parent, a doctor, a teacher, etc.

The psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, “In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” When my nephew was little, his family’s apartment was near their building’s dumpsters. The noisy weekly process of emptying the dumpsters scared my nephew. His response? Become the garbage collector. My nephew played “garbage truck” exclusively for months, constructing neighborhoods where his toy truck could empty bins over and over, and ultimately, conquering his fears.

An acquaintance described an experience in which she turned to pop culture to allay her fears, just as my nephew turned to imaginative play. Nervous about giving birth to her first child, my acquaintance decided to try and channel one of her favorite cultural icons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to prepare mentally for the experience of labor. A study done here at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development attests to the effectiveness of this strategy. Researchers Rachel E. White, PhD, and Emily O. Prager, PhD, described what they called the “Batman effect”: children persevered at a task longer when they pretended to be a heroic character. My acquaintance, too, took advantage of the “Buffy effect.”

Psychological distance in play

A key aspect of the Batman effect is that pretending to be someone else allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from a situation. Psychological distance means we’re less emotionally involved and more able to use our executive function skills–like working towards a goal or controlling our impulses. Recently, my 2-year-old daughter was playing with her toy puppies. She pretended that the puppies were fighting over which would go into the swimming pool first. My 4-year-old daughter pretended to be the puppies’ mom and said, “Let’s think about a way that we could work this out for both of you.” Would my daughter have taken this calm, logical approach in a real disagreement with her sister? Probably not! Her psychological distance from the puppies’ disagreement opened up the opportunity to practice her conflict resolution skills in a way that was “a head taller” than her typical behavior in her own life.

Similarly, adults may favor content that they can maintain at least some psychological distance from. I’ve heard from a number of parents that since having children, they avoid books and movies whose plots include threats to children. These are too close to home, too emotionally activating. Certainly, narratives are most engrossing when we care about the characters and situations presented, but we don’t want to care too much.

Experiencing mastery through imagination

I’m struck by the fact that two of the most enduring fiction genres are romance and mystery. These stories can be repetitive: the couple always gets together, the detective always catches the bad guy. Maybe these classic genres are so appealing because they address some of the biggest life challenges that adults face in the modern world: creating connection and acceptance, and conquering the threat of living in a society with other people. Yet romances and mysteries explore these challenges in ways that preserve our psychological distance by being very different from our actual situations, and their endings resolve the messiness of interpersonal relationships. While children may want to read the exact same picture book ten times in a day, the adult version of mastery through repetition may look like consistently engaging with familiar genres.

All of us–adults and children alike–are looking for mastery and control over our lives. My spouse has a demanding job as a hospital physical therapist. He is also a parent to two young children with lots of their own opinions. In short, his daily life involves a lot of interactions where he doesn’t have control over the other person’s emotions or reactions. Even after a long week, he likes to relax by playing complex strategy games like Everdell, Wingspan, Pandemic, or Scythe. These games offer the opportunity to make decisions that have a direct and immediate effect on the outcome of the game. Win or lose, you control the imaginary world of the game. Table-top games may also offer escape from unpredictable social interactions, or even the opportunity to practice social skills and process experiences. In a recent Wired article about the therapeutic use of table-top role-playing games, one mental health practitioner touted the “life-magic of narrative social play.” 

Play is part of the work of growing up. It helps children practice skills and experience a sense of mastery that builds confidence. Is the same true for adults? I wonder how we might benefit from prioritizing play and imagination in our lives, whether it be at work or at home with our families and friends. How can you use your entertainment and leisure time intentionally to provide fulfilling self-care? What do you do to play? How will you use your imagination today?

The pandemic’s biggest impact on children? How it affects adults

Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, wraps up her series on the pandemic’s impact on young children by looking at how adults’ stress levels affect children.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

Parents and caregivers have a lot to think and worry about during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written about parental concerns around lack of socialization and novel experiences, as well as questions about mask-wearing and increased screen time. I’ve provided some research-based information that I hope will ease parents’ and caregivers’ minds and help them make the most of children’s interactions with them and with others in these challenging times. However, my biggest child development concern actually relates to how the pandemic is affecting us, the adults. 

Experience-expectant processes: what really matters right now

Relationships with adults are, by far, the most foundational component of healthy child development. Children rely on responsive interactions with their caregivers to build brain development. Relationships with stable, nurturing adults create a buffer for children from the negative impact of stressful or traumatic events.

A young child looks out a window with their hands placed on the windowpane

Will children be impacted by the stress their parents and caregivers are feeling?

My short answer: The good news is that “good enough” parenting really is good enough. You do not have to respond to your child at every moment, and you can continue to nurture and grow your relationship even through instances of conflict. That is true even when the adult is the one who loses their cool. 

What is concerning is that for some families, the pandemic creates substantial barriers to high-quality parent-child relationships. The stress of losing a job, housing, or food security; the loss of social support; increased depression and anxiety—all of these factors have the potential to negatively impact the interactions that children have in their homes.

Similarly, for children in child care or early education settings, stress on providers is known to negatively impact positive relationships with children and even increase the likelihood of expelling children from programs. When professional caregivers are overwhelmed due to ever-changing policies and concerns about finances and job stability, it impacts the care they can provide to children. Also, as children re-enter schools and child care after interruptions caused by the pandemic, providers will be challenged to support children with less experience in social situations and more early life stress than they had previously. 

This is most concerning for:

  • Families already experiencing poverty or other major stressors
  • Families with existing mental health concerns
  • Families dealing with racial injustice and discrimination

What can we do to mitigate concerns?

In order to stop the pandemic from hurting the development of young children, we must support the adults who are caring for them.

  • As parents, we can intentionally repair relationships with our children when needed.  While they don’t need to know details, it’s OK for them to know that you are stressed and that sometimes you get impatient or mad, but that it’s not their fault and you still love them.
  • For parents, staying connected with a social support group and doing what you can to support your own mental health is important, but in many situations can only go so far.  Policies and programs that can directly address the major stressors in family’s lives (e.g., financial insecurity, mental health concerns) are needed to ensure that children are given a chance to thrive. 
  • Similarly, people who work in early childhood care and education need to be given the practical and emotional support necessary for them to continue to serve children and families under high stress. Policies and programs need to be put in place to ensure providers have access to the knowledge and skills necessary to support children. They must also have adequate time and support to meet the demands of their job.  
  • For those who work in early childhood education, reflective supervision is a growing professional development practice that can provide emotional support and an outlet for the stress that frontline professionals are subject to. You can download a free e-book from the Reflective Practice Center at CEED to learn more about the benefits of reflective supervision.

Selma Fraiberg, a pioneer in infant mental health, once said that working to promote healthy development in young children is “a little like having God on your side.” Children have an amazing ability to grow and thrive in a huge variety of circumstances. Yes, the pandemic is affecting children’s lives here and now, limiting their opportunity for peer interaction and a variety of experiences, but this year will only be one block in building their development. 

At the same time, the pandemic can affect child development by disrupting the nurturing relationships between children and their caregivers. This is both COVID-19’s most significant potential threat to child development and the most difficult to address, because it requires a commitment from policymakers to support both families and the child care and education systems that they depend on. As we continue through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic and look forward to the recovery phase, let’s make sure to focus on giving parents and caregivers the support they need to be there for their children. 

The middle ground: supporting children’s brain development during the pandemic

In part two in a series, Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, shares tips on supporting young children’s brain development despite lifestyle changes due to the pandemic.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

Parents and caregivers are understandably concerned about how our changed lifestyle amid the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children. In my previous post on the subject, I explained how I categorized some of parents’ most common questions based on a theory of brain development that breaks learning down into experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes. Experience-dependent processes can occur anytime in life. (In other words, if your two-year-old is missing out on peer interactions right now, don’t worry: she can catch up next year.) 

In this installment, I’ll address aspects of the pandemic that I think fall into a kind of middle ground. These aspects alter the environment that the developing brain is set up to learn from. That means they can cross the line into affecting experience-expectant processes and so are areas of potential concern. The good news is that adults can act to mitigate these experiences so that they don’t affect children in the long term.

Will babies be affected by seeing adults wearing masks?

Beginning at birth, babies prefer to look at faces—even drawings of faces or face-like shapes—above all else. It’s clear that they’re biologically programmed to seek out faces and that caregivers’ emotional expressions provide crucial information about the world around them. Adults in public places are now wearing masks, making their faces distinctly less face-like, and hiding our mouths, which are the most obvious indicators of smiles. 

A woman wearing a face mask holds a baby

My short answer: Babies are incredibly resilient. They can probably learn a lot in whatever time they have with unmasked adults. It’s unlikely that sometimes seeing adults, including primary caregivers, in masks will have a great impact on children’s development—although babies may notice and even show some distress. However, children who spend long hours in settings with masked caregivers may not be getting critical input that the developing brain expects and relies on. I don’t know of any research at this time that can point to how much unmasked time is enough.

This is most concerning for: 

  • Children who spend long hours in child care settings with masked providers
  • Young babies who don’t have the vision and cognition to process the variety of environmental cues that toddlers and preschoolers do
  • Children with developmental delays or difficulties with emotion regulation or perspective-taking

What can we do to mitigate concerns?

  • Make sure that adults who live in babies’ households (so they don’t need to be masked) know the importance of face-to-face time. Every minute counts in terms of eye contact, facial expressions, and talking to your baby.
  • For those who must be masked when interacting with babies, there are clear masks available that allow others to see your mouth when interacting with you. The ClearMask is one version that has been approved by the FDA and is being recommended by the Florida Association for Infant Mental Health.

Will the increase in screen time harm our children?

Like most parents working from home, I have used screens more than I otherwise would to occupy my toddler. A lot of parents I know worry about this, and with good reason, as children’s brains do not expect to sit and passively consume blinking lights as a main source of stimulation. There is evidence that too much screen time can affect children’s ability to pay attention and regulate their own behavior. However, we also know that the content chosen matters greatly, and that children can learn academic and social skills from high-quality TV and games.

My short answer: This depends on dose and content. Screen time has the potential to be harmful for children if it takes away their opportunities to play, be active, and engage in other types of thinking, or if they are watching shows that are violent or not age-appropriate.

What can we do to mitigate concerns?

  • Choose programming intentionally that will promote cognitive and social skills. With limited opportunities to play with other children or experience new ideas and places, the content kids view on screens is likely shaping their world view now more than ever, and we can use that to our advantage! PBS has great shows for young children–Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and Elinor Wonders Why are a few that are designed to teach children academic and social skills. Khan Academy has a free app with age-specific games. Search the internet for videos about any of your child’s interests, from how a garbage truck works to live streams of baby polar bears.
  • Be involved in screen time. I know that often, the whole point of screens is to have a chance to do something else. But if you watch a show with your child every once in a while or even just catch the first or last few minutes, you’ll glean enough to help children apply lessons from the show to their own life. 
  • Set limits and be consistent. Make the limits reasonable given your current situation so that you can stick to them; it’s OK if this looks different than it would in non-pandemic life. Children will be less likely to have meltdowns if they can expect that screens are used during a specific time of day for a certain length of time.

My next post in this series will explore my greatest concern about children’s development during COVID-19: the pandemic’s impact on adults.

Will our kids be okay? Parents’ concerns about the pandemic’s effect on children

Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, tackles some common parental concerns about the lifestyle changes forced by COVID-19.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

As the pandemic has dragged on over nearly a year now, I’ve had to adjust my expectations for a return to “normal,” along with everyone else. There’s now a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines are distributed. Nevertheless, many parents of young children have lingering concerns. The years from birth to five are recognized as a foundational period for child development. Children in that age bracket will have spent 20% of that important period in this altered pandemic life. How will it affect their long-term development?

Normal behavior or pandemic problem?

In my personal experience, it has been hard to sort out normal behavior from the pandemic’s influence. When my younger daughter, now six months old, was six weeks old, my husband contracted COVID-19. Because he was instructed to self-isolate within our home, the only adult face our daughter saw for three weeks was my own. When our baby was 12 weeks old, her grandmothers began providing child care for her and our older daughter. Our baby was very fussy and often cried when she looked at her grandmothers closely. How much of that was typical stranger anxiety and how much was due to her experience in the pandemic?

We didn’t go to any playgrounds for a few months. After playgrounds reopened, another child approached my two-year-old daughter and said, “Hi.” My daughter cried. How much of that was her naturally shy personality and how much was due to the pandemic?

For a few months, my two-year-old was obsessed with Daniel Tiger. Most of her pretend play revolved around things she saw him do: fly a kite, buy shoes, make an obstacle course. She even started using words from the show, like “grr-ific” and “tiger-tastic,” in conversation. Was this simply a two-year-old’s enthusiasm? Or was it because it had been so long since she’d gone to a library, a grocery store, or a restaurant—much less seen friends in person—that she no longer had vivid personal recollections on which to base her pretend play?

In each of these cases, there were likely normal developmental forces at work interacting with the experience of living in a pandemic. There’s no way to know “what might have been” had there been no pandemic. But as parents, we naturally worry about what our children have lost and grieve for this year of their childhood as we had pictured it for them.

Two children wearing cloth masks sit on stairs

As a parent and child psychology researcher, I think it’s important to address parents’ concerns. But I also know it’s important not to get too stressed out about things that won’t matter in the long run. I’ve identified some of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from parents regarding the pandemic’s effect on children. Based on my personal experience and my training as a developmental psychologist, I’ve sorted these concerns into three categories.

  • The first category includes pandemic-related circumstances towards which developmental science suggests children will show resilience. I’ve addressed these questions below and provided some tips for parents and caregivers.
  • The second category includes legitimate concerns, but ones that we as parents and caregivers can affect positively in the near term. I’ve addressed these in the second post in this series and provided some additional tips.
  • The third category includes major causes for concern. In the final post in this series, I’ve explained why addressing these serious problems will require collective effort, rather than individual actions.

Experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes

The framework that has helped me create these categories is a developmental concept that describes how genes and environment interact to result in learning. In a 1987 paper, William Greenough and colleagues suggested that humans learn through what they called experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes

Experience-expectant processes are based on information that the brain expects to be present in the environment and that we are genetically prepared to take in. This includes sources of information that are universally present in typical development, such as vision or language. If babies are not exposed to these sources of information during a specific time in their development, their brain will prune away the neurons that would typically be devoted to processing them. Experience-dependent processes, on the other hand, are what allow humans to learn a huge variety of skills. Our brains are not “hard-wired” to learn hockey or chess; we can learn these skills at any time in our lives. This kind of learning involves forming new synapses rather than pruning neurons.

Experience-dependent learning: Don’t worry, our kids will catch up

In this section, I’ll address two of the most common concerns I’ve heard from parents.

Will the lack of peer interaction harm my children? 

My short answer: There’s no “critical period” for learning social skills. If a child misses out on some things at age two, she can learn them next year at three. While the transition back to frequent, large-group peer interactions might be uncomfortable and require adult support, kids will bounce back. I don’t predict many long-term effects on personality or on children’s ability to make friends.

What can we do to mitigate parents’ concerns?

  • Focus on interactions with the people in your household. While your child may not get to interact with as many same-age peers as they normally would, they can learn a lot of skills interacting with siblings and parents. Talk about and model skills like taking turns and using “please” and “thank you.”
  • Try short Zoom playdates with planned activities. It’s harder for toddlers and preschoolers to carry on a conversation when they can’t physically interact, but they can have a dance party, do a show and tell of their toys, or play games like “Simon Says.”
  • Silver lining: This situation is making siblings (if your child has them) more essential playmates than they otherwise would have been! 
A family of two adults and two young children play Monopoly

Are children suffering from a lack of stimulation?

My short answer: While trips and activities are certainly enjoyable and enriching, all the experiences needed for supporting brain development in young children can be done at home. As a parent, I completely understand that it’s daunting (and repetitive) to be stuck inside all winter with your kids. But as long as children are given the opportunity to play, they are doing the necessary work of childhood.

What can we do to mitigate parents’ concerns?

  • If staying at home gets boring, try thinking about different categories of play: pretend play, gross motor, fine motor, music and dancing, construction play, and playing games. Try to promote a mix of these each day. 
  • Remember that your perspective is different from your child’s. To them, reading the same book over and over again is a great opportunity to learn and understand. In their playroom, they may visit the farm, the fire station, and the moon all within 10 minutes! 
  • Acknowledge your own sadness about what might have been, but try to reframe another day at home as another day to engage in high-quality play.

Children have grown up in an infinite number of different conditions across history, location, and culture. As a middle-class parent in the United States, I have an “ideal childhood” in mind for my children, but I also know that I am part of a generation whose expectations tend toward intensive parenting and over-involvement. Sometimes, I think about the things that my children are missing out on, like playgrounds, museums, birthday parties, and holiday celebrations. I feel sad about the loss of fun experiences and about the delay in forming positive relationships and discovering my family’s traditions. However, I don’t worry about their long-term development. In many other environments, it’s very normal for children to spend their early childhood at home with one or a few caregivers.

In the next post in this series, I’ll tackle parents’ questions that fall into a kind of “middle ground”: research confirms that they are real concerns, but they also have real solutions.

Parenting in a pandemic is hard; self-determination theory helps us understand why

Alyssa Meuwissen reflects on Self-Determination Theory, which has helped her make sense of her experience parenting young children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

As a parent, one of my deepest desires is to give my children the world: all of its joys and opportunities, its beauty and love. But what happens when suddenly the world your children are born into is not the world you expected—or wanted? That’s been the case for parents of young children across the globe this year as the COVID-19 pandemic upended all of our lives.

There’s no question that the pandemic has had a significant impact on people in many different walks of life, both those with children and those without. But in thinking over the past nine months, I found myself trying to pinpoint why parenting during this pandemic seemed to present unique challenges. I recalled a model called Self-Determination Theory that I have used in my research on how adults can support children’s self-regulation. 

Self-Determination Theory suggests that three conditions are necessary for people to thrive:

  1. Competence: feeling that you are able to succeed at what you’re trying to do 
  2. Autonomy: the ability to make choices that align with your preferences and values 
  3. Relatedness: feeling connected to those around you

Self-Determination Theory helped me make sense of my experiences as a parent since the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic has cut off opportunities for parents to experience competence, autonomy, and relatedness. This framing can help explain why parenting in the pandemic has felt so difficult for so many people.

A loss of competence

In late 2019, I became pregnant with my second child. At the time, we had a blossoming one and a half year old girl and a stable life enmeshed in a network of family and friends. We were so thrilled to be growing our family. Then in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, along with a state government order to “shelter in place.” My birthday, my husband’s, and our older daughter’s are all in March, within a couple of weeks of each other. In what would have been a month of gatherings and parties, it seemed that all fun was cancelled. 

My husband’s job as a physical therapist in an assisted living facility suddenly became the work of a “frontline hero.” But of course, no one got to choose whether they wanted to be one of those heroes. My mother’s job as a public health nurse changed into managing the pandemic response for schools in her county. My two main support people were suddenly both personally involved in this crisis situation. For six weeks, we made the decision to discontinue the child care that grandparents had been providing in order to protect our parents and ourselves. I stayed home with our now-two-year-old. Normally, I work 30 hours a week as a researcher. Now, I was trying to make those 30 hours’ worth of work fit into the few hours a day when my toddler was asleep or occupied. 

Those first few months of the pandemic were hard. It was impossible to fulfill my own expectations of being a good mom and a good employee with no child care. I was getting up early and working late into the evening, attending meetings on mute while also attending (sort of) to the constant stream of chatter coming from my daughter.

I grieved for my toddler. I was only one person. I couldn’t provide the novelty, variety, and stimulation she’d always had being around family and friends. I couldn’t be a grandparent who could just delight in her without needing to fulfill other responsibilities at the same time. I couldn’t be a cousin or a friend who could help her practice social skills or expand her ideas of what was possible in play. It was just my daughter and me, and I was growing more pregnant, day after day, in the same house, with the same toys, for six weeks. The repetition itself was exhausting. 

Working from home while trying to parent very young children, particularly when that isn’t what you wanted or planned for, makes it very hard to maintain a sense of competence. This feeling is further compounded for parents who are also trying to fill the role of a teacher for children who are attending school remotely. Even with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I felt I could still be a really good employee, or I could be a really good mom. I just couldn’t do both at the same time. The mental energy it took to constantly respond to my toddler while trying to think and write productively was draining. Many parents will relate to my frustration at my inability to do all I was being asked to do.

A loss of autonomy

As my pregnancy progressed through spring and summer, I could no longer get appointments with my usual doctor. We were shuffled between providers—sometimes online, sometimes in person—in a scrambled attempt to keep patients and providers safe. While I knew the team was competent and trustworthy, I had a lingering feeling that no one  knew us well enough to take care of us as individuals rather than just as a generic woman and baby. Instead of looking forward to hearing my baby’s heartbeat at each appointment, I felt anxiety as visits were consumed by ever-changing rules about delivery. Choices surrounding birth plans were limited, no visitors were allowed, and those giving birth were allowed to choose one support person who would need to follow strict screening procedures. 

At one point, we were told that if my husband had any COVID-19 symptoms, he wouldn’t be able to be present at the birth. We spent two weeks worrying that I might be alone in the delivery room. Then at our next visit, a different provider retracted the earlier ban on alternate support people. I tapped my mother as a back-up support and a friend as a second back-up in case my mom got sick. 

I forced myself to be okay with plans A, B, and C, but I also held the emotions of my husband inside, knowing that missing the birth of his child would scar him. And I grieved for my baby. There was so much stress being pumped into her tiny growing brain. We could not get sick before her birth. And yet every day my husband went to work at an assisted living facility and faced the risk of exposure to COVID.

We had lost our autonomy. We no longer had agency to make choices about what would be best for our family or about the circumstances of our second child’s birth. Of course, I recognized that many things about the birth process would have been out of my hands even in normal times. Yet the heightened uncertainty around my husband’s job and around the hospital’s procedures made it all so hypothetical. It was paralyzing to hang in suspense for months. Meanwhile, in a vicious circle, my stress increased because of the knowledge that my stress could affect my baby. I was struck by the realization that she would be among a whole class of children who were exposed to extra prenatal stress.

Many people have identified decision fatigue as a major difficulty during the pandemic. What had been everyday life—having a playdate with our best friends, say—now became a decision to agonize about and plan to the last detail. (If we meet them at their house, will there be a tantrum if we can’t go inside? If we stay outside, do we need to wear masks? How much guilt will I feel if we find out we gave them COVID?)

I think an important aspect of decision fatigue is the lack of autonomy to make decisions that align with your own values. I have so often felt that there was no decision that would satisfactorily meet my own needs for physical safety and mental health, much less the needs of the rest of my family. Every step toward normalcy and connection with others seemed to come at the risk of physical health, creating a sense of inability to make the “right” decision for anyone.

A loss of relatedness

We stayed healthy through the summer and made it to the birth, which actually went pretty smoothly. My husband went back to work on a Monday, when our new baby was four weeks old.  She first smiled the following Monday, when she was five weeks old. I remember commenting that although I was happy, I’d never been more exhausted. And then, on the following Monday, when the baby was 6 weeks old, my husband walked in the door after a long day at work and said, “I’m not feeling well.” 

My first thought was not, “You might have COVID, and I’m worried about you.” Instead, it was “Does that mean you’re not going to take this crying baby from me when I’m in the middle of trying to get dinner on the table?” He did indeed test positive for COVID. Although he’d likely have been contagious for two days before he got symptoms, the recommendation was to have him self-quarantine in our house. This was another impossible situation. We’d have likely been exposed already, and now I would lose my husband’s support for 10 days; to what end? Yet we had a six-week-old baby; how could we risk exposing her and our two-year-old more than we already had?

My husband duly spent 10 days stuck in our bedroom listening to us—listening to the playing, the laughing, the cooing, the crying, the screaming—unable to interact, unable to help. Ten bedtimes where I’d try to stick our toddler in front of the TV long enough for me to nurse the baby to sleep, only to have the baby wake up screaming minutes later every single time, just as I was trying to get the two-year-old into bed. Ten nights where I slept on the living room couch in the green glow of both baby monitors, traipsing up and down the stairs to feed the baby and soothe her back to sleep countless times each night.  

I grieved for my husband. He felt so useless, never more so than when he started feeling better and still couldn’t be a part of our family. He couldn’t smile at our new baby. During the brief moments when he came out of the bedroom to see us, he wore a mask and a face shield. Our baby was 43 days old when her dad got COVID, and she didn’t see him smile for 10 days—almost a quarter of her life at that point. I grieved for our toddler, who knew Daddy was behind that closed door. And I grieved for myself, for how much was out of my control and how completely alone I was. For the bone-deep exhaustion of being six weeks postpartum and suddenly being the only person providing any input of love and care into my two girls. Not only had I lost the support of my husband, we also had to isolate in our home, cut off from any external support. A few family members and friends dropped off food and toys, for which I was so grateful. But of course, they could not bring what we needed most. Just arms to hold the baby for a few minutes. Just a mind to connect with either of the kids so that mine could have a break.

We got through it, one day at a time. We checked the days of my husband’s quarantine off the list one by one. Then on the final night, I got a sore throat. The next morning I had a headache and a mild cough. And every breath my tiny baby took in and out was audible through a very congested nose. We spent the morning messaging and calling doctors, who said our baby and I were both “presumed positive” with such clear exposure in our home.

Again, I grieved for myself. This was too much. On the day I had been looking forward to having help, I was a sick parent with a sick baby in a global pandemic. Our family’s isolation clock started again: 14 more days with no grandmas, no cousins, no playgrounds. I grieved for the grandmothers who desperately wanted to help but were cut off from us.

We were lucky. Both the baby and I recovered after just a few days. Although my husband suffered lingering fatigue for a few weeks after recovering, he was able to return to work. Since we had all been exposed at this point, there was no longer a need to quarantine within our immediate family. I had my partner back, and we were going to be okay. It was, however, a long month. One day toward the end of our quarantine my older daughter looked up at me and sighed. 

“I’m so tired of waiting,” she said. I asked her what she was waiting for just then, because for once I wasn’t feeding the baby or putting her to sleep. 

“Oh, I’m just tired of waiting for the day.” 

She spoke my exact feeling out loud. 

We had about a week of “back-to-normal,” and then my mom’s mom got sick and was put on hospice. Within days, she died. We are not certain whether she died of COVID-19. It was another uphill battle to achieve competence, autonomy, and relatedness as our family tried to grieve and honor my grandmother’s life. We adapted; we had a virtual wake, a cold and windy outdoor funeral with no singing. We did what we could. We did our best given the circumstances. It was hard to accept the conditions that made it impossible to say goodbye to my grandmother in person, to celebrate her life in the way we would have wished, to even offer hugs to one another after her funeral. I grieved for my whole family.

Finding hope

It’s widely understood that children need available, nurturing caregivers to grow and thrive. Children rely on adults to regulate their emotions so that they can get through tough experiences. We talk a lot about children developing self-regulation. But interpersonal neuroscience shows that adults actually don’t do that much self-regulating either. We rely on our own “attachment figures,” people we feel close to and trust, to co-regulate. Different cultures know this all around the world, and that’s why in tough times and after tragedies, people show up to be together. 

This pandemic has shaken the stability of our normal coping strategies. Quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and social distance policies—all necessary measures in the face of a dangerous virus—have suddenly limited adults’ access to their own support networks. Just like for children, those supports are instrumental in managing stress and promoting resilience.

This loss of relatedness is especially hard for parents, because they have no choice but to keep pouring energy and connection into their children, while their opportunities to fill up on these themselves are severely limited. There’s a concept called parallel process in the field of infant and early childhood mental health. This principle states that “you cannot give what you do not receive.” Yet this pandemic asks parents to do exactly that: to be enough for their children in every aspect of development, while simultaneously putting up barriers between parents and their own support systems. 

During the last nine months, it has been harder to be a parent than it otherwise would have been. It has been harder to get our own needs met—already difficult while parenting young children. And while my experience has been challenging, I’ve become even more aware of my family’s privileges. I often imagine how different things would be if I were a single parent, if our household had suffered a job loss due to the pandemic, if we did not have any extended family nearby…the list goes on.

As we think about how to best support the parents in all of our lives—in the myriad circumstances in which they find themselves—we can recognize the impact of the pandemic on their sense of self-determination. For me, at least, it has been helpful to understand and acknowledge the erosion of competence, autonomy, and relatedness that has defined this experience. 

I’ve also found reasons to be grateful for being a parent to a young child at this time. Even though all of the big, fun, social occasions in our lives have been cancelled, young children can find such incredible joy in small things that adult eyes often overlook: snow melting into storm drains, the arrival of the garbage truck, jumping in leaf piles, sticking things together with Elmer’s glue, the first snowfall, singing and dancing, hugs.

On one of our countless walks around the block because there was nowhere else to go, my older daughter started marching and wiggling and looked up at me, “Mama, did you know that I can dance with NO music?” Theoretically, I did know that, but it’s hard for adults to remember it all the time. There’s so much kids can do with what they have around them, even as we adults grieve the loss of the “normal” we had pictured for them. We gave our pandemic baby the middle name Hope, because we do have immense hope that on the other side of the pandemic our children will be part of building a world that is even more beautiful and joyful for everyone.

Supporting kindergarten readiness at home

Here are some ways to support school readiness from home for families of children who will be starting kindergarten amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Families of children who will be starting kindergarten this fall may look to the new school year with a mix of apprehension and excitement amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There are still so many unknowns about the 2020-21 school year. Parents may also have some specific questions about school readiness. Perhaps their children were attending preschool up until recently. Maybe their schedule included sports, music, and play groups—activities that are likely much more limited under a stay-at-home order.

Parents may wonder what they can do to help prepare next year’s kindergarteners at home. At the same time, they may also be bombarded with well-intentioned resources for keeping their children occupied; just sorting through them can feel like a full-time job! The good news is that parents can help with both academic and social skills at home. Even better, kindergarten readiness doesn’t have to be another onerous item on your to-do list. Instead, it can be integrated into your child’s everyday activities, including play.

A child pulls a Jenga block from a tower of blocks

Defining kindergarten readiness

How is kindergarten readiness defined? This term can be broken down into four basic categories of skills.

Literacy: All skills underlying reading. This includes recognizing and writing letters or words and knowing the sounds letters make. It also involves being able to recall and tell stories and taking an interest in books and reading.
Numeracy: Pre-math skills like recognizing numbers, counting, making comparisons such as less or more, ordering items based on size, matching shapes, and identifying patterns.
Self-regulation or executive function: Skills that allow a child to work toward a goal, such as planning ahead, identifying and correcting mistakes, controlling impulses, and persevering through frustration.
Social-emotional skills: Knowing and following the social conventions of interacting with teachers and peers, such as listening to others, sharing, and asking others to join in play.

In this time when enrichment opportunities are more limited than usual and parents are often meeting the demands of work and parenting simultaneously, play can be used as a crucial tool for ensuring children are still practicing school readiness skills.

“Play is often talked about as if it were relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

Fred Rogers

Literacy and numeracy

Literacy activities don’t need to be limited to activities that require sitting still! Your child can still absorb the words in books while acting out the story or rolling on the floor. One clever idea for active youngsters is to work on the alphabet by writing their name and other words in sidewalk chalk and asking them to name (or shout!) the letters as they jump from one to the next.

Play is a crucial context for building vocabulary, as children are more likely to learn new words when they’re presented in play. Build on your child’s interests. Are they interested in animals? Talk about their play using words they may not know yet, like “mammals,” “talons,” or “herd.” Highlight the fun of language by thinking up rhymes or prompting your child to do so. You can change up the words of songs your child knows well, maybe making the song about them!

A child holds a collection of pinecones
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Pre-math skills can also be incorporated into play and are more appealing when they are applied to your child’s interests. To build a Lego house that is the same height on all sides, a child will need to practice counting. Stuffed animals can be categorized, for example into a family of dogs and a family of cats, or lined up from smallest to largest. Children love to “hunt and gather” in outdoor play. They could collect 10 pinecones or pick 15 dandelions or sort rocks into piles of large and small.

“In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

Lev Vygotsky

Executive function and social-emotional skills

Playing pretend allows children to process their emotions, because they are able to take an outside view rather than being overwhelmed by the experience itself. Pretend play is also a unique realm where children have control over how they wish things were. What does your child talk about when they pretend? Being able to make believe that, for example, the playground is open, helps children to express and have control over their feelings about playgrounds being closed. Sometimes having an adult join in a pretend world is an important acknowledgement that the child’s feelings are valid.

To build executive function skills, it’s important for parents to let children lead the play. Children don’t get to make many big decisions in the “real world,” so pretend play is a chance for them to make a plan and discover the consequences. Encourage your child to verbalize a plan. For example, “Monkey will eat breakfast, then take a bath, then get dressed, then take a nap.” Or else, “I will build a rocket that has three windows.” Then help them remember and carry out their plan. For activities where there’s a “right answer,” such as putting together puzzles, think about how you can avoid correcting children’s mistakes. Instead, try to guide them through identifying and correcting their own mistakes. Teaching kids overall strategies, such as building the corners and edges of the puzzle first, helps them become more independent.

One way to help them practice the social skills that they’ll need when they enter kindergarten is to harness play to work through imagined scenarios. If you want to work on sharing with your child, build on what they are playing. For example, suggest that one doll wants to play with the other doll’s toy. You can ask your child about how the dolls are feeling. What might they say to each other? How might they work out sharing the toy?

You can also encourage children to “play school” as kindergarten approaches. You may notice them using puppets or stuffed animals to work through questions and concerns they have about starting school, and you can follow suit, providing information and reassurance about what to expect through the medium of pretend play.

We all know that reading to children is an important way to support budding readers, and choosing books about making friends and resolving conflict can help develop social-emotional skills as well as literacy. I’m fond of two series from Free Spirit Press. The Best Behavior series includes titles such as Hands Are Not for Hitting and Words Are Not for Hurting that are appropriate for the very youngest children. Free Spirit’s Learning to Get Along series offers titles like Share and Take Turns and Join in and Play. Another fun pair of picture books are Me Too and Me, Me, Me by Annika Dunklee from Kids Can Press. These stories are aimed at slightly older children but their relatable characters and social situations would also appeal to the pre-K set.

Using screens intentionally

Many parents are relying on screen time more than they otherwise might as a way to get things accomplished with the whole family at home. Instead of feeling guilty, why not be intentional about which programs and games children engage with? High-quality TV shows and games do exist that entertain and teach at the same time. PBS Kids offers ad-free shows and games to suit a variety of ages and interests. Most of their apps are free of charge, including the content-rich PBS Kids Video and PBS Kids Games apps. Consult the independent nonprofit organization Common Sense Media for reviews and recommendations for all kinds of media on many different platforms.

School readiness activities don’t have to be complex or time-consuming. Meet children where they are—at play! Observe your child at play. What school readiness skills are they already using? What do they love to play? How can you make your child’s play a little more fun, a little more interesting, and a little more educational by adding some new ideas?