When this period of distance learning ends, there will be hundreds of studies released on how it impacted our children.  We can help mitigate the negative effects by recognizing the problems and doing everything in our power to keep our children socially connected to others while we shelter-at-home.

As adults, we sometimes forget or overlook how important it is for children to establish and maintain relationships.  The experts are clear on this.  According to the Child Mind Institute, “Most kids don’t need a lot of friends.  But friendships, both in the early grade school years, and later, when they are teenagers, are crucial to a child’s social and emotional growth.”

A recent Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) document posted on the MentalHelp.Net website stated, “Loneliness is a significant problem that can predispose young children to immediate and long-term consequences.”  I observed this firsthand when I taught at El Toro Marine School in Irvine.  Families were moved from base to base, making it difficult for the children to make and maintain friendships.  It often affected their ability to learn.

Many children would agree with Big Bird when he said, “But sometimes I feel sad when I can’t go to school and play with my friends.”

Most children express their feelings non-verbally.  We must pay attention to non-verbal communication, which comprises up to 94% of communication according to most experts.  One example is my friend’s grandson, an only child, who was happy and active before the pandemic.  His days were filled with school, structured activities and sports.  Since the stay-at-home order took effect, this same child has struggled with isolation and now just sits on the couch, not wanting to do anything.  Withdrawing is how a person displays depression.  Is it any wonder?  One day, our children were going to school, learning new exciting things, and playing with their friends.  Then suddenly, they were told about a deadly virus, forced to stay home, and completely isolated from all of their buddies.

My friend’s grandson is not the only child experiencing problems.  Parents report that their children are having increased nightmares, tantrums, regressions, grief, violent outbursts, and an exaggerated fear of strangers.   There can be long-term consequences on the way they relate to people…and how they learn.

Educators agree that schools will figure out how to teach our kids about math and Shakespeare.  But, they are encouraging parents to concentrate on the things that cannot be created during distance learning.  Right now, loving parents and grandparents are needed to help children socially connect to family and friends.

This is where social media can help!  In the past, I have written about how dangerous too much screen time can be to children.  However, we are in a very different situation right now, and technology can help keep our kids connected.

There are lots of social media platforms that allow for interactions between two or more children — playing together, connecting, having fun, and maintaining their friendships.

During this time of physical distancing, we should be encouraging our kids to socially connect with others as often as possible.

Do you remember playing phone with 2 cans and a string?  Even back then, we knew how important it was to hear another person’s voice.  One of the simplest things we can do right now to stay connected is to call a friend.   Just hearing their voice can help relieve stress, and make things feel more “normal.”

And with so many options available (such as FaceTime and Messenger Kids) for seeing one another as we talk, our kids can maintain relationships with their friends through digital play dates.

I’ve recently learned of three local moms who are helping their kids stay connected.  Here’s how:

Nora has a FaceTime session each morning with her best friend.  Together, they play with puppets and stuffed animals.  Her mom, Anna-Lisa, set it up to make sure that Nora starts each day with a smile!

Heather set up her daughter’s Messenger Kids app because a friend invited her.  There are parental controls for protection and the kids are having a great time chatting throughout the day.

Shannon’s mom, Michele, helped her call a 1st grade friend on FaceTime.  Both girls were a little apprehensive at the beginning, staring at the screen, wondering, “How did my friend get in the phone?”  But they were happy to see each other and were able to get past the initial awkwardness.  Michele also set up ‘Messenger Kids’ for her son, Bodie.  Last June, Bodie’s friend, Nihar, moved back to India.  This offered the opportunity for them to see each other again and catch up.  As soon as Bodie saw his buddy, he said, “Oh, wow.  There he is!”  Their faces told the story of how happy they were to re-connect and maintain their long-distance friendship.

Each of these three moms are helping to keep their kids socially connected, while also providing a sense of structure to their child’s daily life, which is critical right now.  Just knowing that you are going to be hanging out (digitally) with your best friend every day at 4pm, can do wonders for your stress level.

And it’s also important for kids to remain socially connected to grandparents and extended family members.  Ben stays connected to his grandparents by leading an exercise session over Zoom.  His family and his grandparents exercise together every morning, in their respective homes, under Ben’s instruction.  After exercising together, they have a chance to chat and talk about what they’ll be doing the rest of the day.

Here are a few more examples for keeping your kids connected to friends and family:

Franciella and her sister challenged their children to Zoom Bingo.  If the kids won, they got $5.  If the moms won, the kids had to do the dishes.  Everyone had a great time, shared a lot of laughs, and are already planning to do it again.

The ‘Family Tree’ app is another fun way to connect children to extended family members.  Children contact the people on the tree and then enter their information, including three adjectives to describe them.

There are countless other things you can do to keep your kids connecting with others socially.  Below are a few examples:

  • Girlfriends can create a digital hangout session where they help one another pick out colors for their manicures or pedicures, and then paint their nails together.
  • You can set up sessions for your child and their friend(s) to learn how to sew, knit, crochet, cook, or plant a garden.
  • If someone in the family is especially good with animals, they may want to host a Zoom session to teach your child how to train your family dog or the right way to brush a cat.
  • Have your children play games with their friends on Zoom (checkers, chess, Monopoly, UNO).
  • Plan a book exchange (ring the doorbell and run).  Kids can take turns reading a book to each other, or they can ask their grandparents to read a book to them each night before bed.
  • Friends and family can watch the kids act out story books (with or without costumes & props) via Zoom.
  • Plan for your child and their friends to all take a walk during the day (in their own neighborhoods or at different times).  During the walk, each child should take photos or videos of bugs, birds, flowers or something that catches their eye.  They can then compare the photos/videos while telling their friends what they saw.
  • Encourage your children to help others.  Have them sort their toys and books to be donated to charity, sew a mask for healthcare workers (or a neighbor), make cheerful cards or paint kindness rocks as gifts to neighbors who are all alone.

And don’t forget to make sure that you are continuing to do fun, silly things together as a family.  Have everyone paint a picture, camp out in the backyard, sing favorite funny songs, have a family dance party, play instruments (even if it’s just kitchen pots & pans), and learn something new together (a new craft, a new song, a new dance, etc.).

As you can see, there are lots of things we can be doing to make sure our children continue to thrive, even during this challenging time.

Watch for more Kids Connecting ideas in the coming weeks.

We would love to have you share your own creative ideas on helping kids combat loneliness.  To let me know what you’re doing, email me at Carolyn@IrvineCommunityNews.org

Carolyn Inmon