By Alix Tonsgard, MS, Early Learning Specialist, DuPage Children’s Museum
Let’s talk about social distancing with toddlers. Spoiler alert: it’s really hard. It depends on a number of factors like context, temperament, age, development, and, for toddlers, their unpredictability in that the wind could blow the wrong direction and make their world fall apart. By now, we have had practically five months to practice social distancing and we continue to practice every. single. day.
In spring, as we adjusted to working from home and raising a two-year old, regular trips to the forest preserve and walks around our neighborhood quickly became staple activities. From day one my partner and I have been consistent with our language telling our little guy, “we have to keep our distance to keep everyone safe.” He learned very quickly and before we knew it he was telling us when he would see a bicycle approaching to keep our distance.
Now, fast forward to the playgrounds opening. We decided that since we have the luxury of living in an area with many, many parks in a ten-mile radius, we would choose playgrounds that were empty or had only a couple other families until we had a better sense of what was safe. Finding empty playgrounds at first wasn’t a problem and when we took our toddler to them his initial reaction was pure joy. Scratch that, joy isn’t what I am looking for here. He was elated. It was as if it was the best moment of his two-year old life.
We rode that train for a few weeks until it quickly faded when he realized that the playground just wasn’t as fun without friends. We tried taking trucks and balls and other things to the playground to make it more interesting and sometimes that worked really well. We had some amazing physics experiments with monster trucks and slides and chased lots of bubbles, but without another child to run with and chase and laugh, the park lost some of its magic.
And then it happened: we arrived at one of our regular spots and saw that another family was there–one adult and two children. I thought about going somewhere else but then I took a deep breath and gave myself a pep talk. We’ve been practicing for this, I told myself. It’s going to happen some time, we’ve got this. As I unbuckled him from his car seat I said, “Ok buddy, remember, we need to keep our distance to keep everyone safe.” After another deep breath, we approached the playground. I decided to watch and offer reminders and guidance as needed. He cautiously but with great interest approached the two children. I could tell from his body language that he was unsure of how to navigate this but dying to engage.
The brother and sister also had a similar response. They were clearly excited that there was another potential playmate there but unsure of what to do. Then began this sort of dance where they were not really parallel or solo playing but constantly expressing with their body language that they were trying to figure out what was ok. As their mother and I hovered and watched I commented on how interesting I found this dance but also how it was sort of heartbreaking. After sharing some of our quarantine with young children experiences she said that she and her husband were both working from home and that she felt safe about them playing here with my toddler if I did. So I said, “Ok buddy, you can play, but let’s keep our distance.” What followed was a level of happiness I do not know how to describe. And then, as I watched them play, I saw that all our talk with our toddler about what distance means was quickly forgotten (insert facepalm emoji).
And thus began a pattern–we are really great at keeping our distance when we go for walks or to visit my parents but, it turns out, adding other children to the equation is like letting him hold an ice cream cone but allowing him only one lick. Now imagine how you as an adult with a fully formed brain would feel in this situation. Some of you might have a lot of self-control but self-control isn’t purely a learned behavior.
Impulse control, self-regulation, the ability to ignore distractions, these are all things that fall under the umbrella of executive functions skills that strengthen as a child’s brain develops. For two and three-year olds, these capacities are just beginning to form. Children need a lot of support in practicing them (this strengthens the connections in the brains that make it all possible, so amazing, I know). I hope you didn’t start reading this thinking that I had a magical strategy for you. A lot of it depends on the child and the context on top of where they are developmentally. If friends are your child’s ice cream, they are going to need a lot of support in developing the capacity to resist the urge to hug them and keep their distance.
One thing that has helped us is talking about it. Every night before we read bedtime stories we talk about our day. Talking about friends and keeping our distance are recurring themes. If your child loves stories there are some excellent social stories online on this topic. Other children respond well to playing out the themes they are trying to master. Pretend play with stuffed animals, toy cars, other family members, or whatever they like most might be a helpful tool for mastering the idea. Really, the most important thing is keep it simple, stay consistent, practice, and don’t forget to breathe. We will get through this. And, if you have a strategy that has worked wonders for you, share it here! I would love to hear about it.
Alix Tonsgard is the Early Learning Specialist at DuPage Children’s Museum. She holds an MS in Child Development from the Erikson Institute. Acting as the Museum’s advocate for early childhood development and learning, she ensures that the latest research in Early Childhood Education is represented in all Museum exhibits, professional development initiatives, and public programs.