Kids demonstrate social distancing during a play date.
Photo courtesy Crystal McCormick

Explaining Social Distancing to Kids

Teaching our children how to do what we are still learning

Two months ago, you could easily have thought the phrase “social distancing” was just another euphemism for “ghosting." But now it seems social distancing has crept in to every aspect of our lives. Due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), children and families are finding themselves in new and unforeseen situations. It’s time for parents to examine the new normal for socializing, without alarming kids in the process. 

Teaching About Social Distancing
If adults are having a hard enough time dealing with the new normal and isolation, imagine what their children must be feeling. Proper parenting includes providing a sense of closeness to your children, as well as affection. Now, that's all been thrown on its head. Children probably don’t fully understand why they are not allowed to be with friends or at school, which is why it’s crucial to explain the importance of social distancing. 

Talk to your kids about how social distancing means staying away from others until the risk of contracting COVID-19 is under control. For older children, showing the "flatten the curve" charts may help them grasp the significance of social distancing. Explain that while we don't know how long it will take to reduce the number of those infected, we do know that this is a critical time and that we must follow the guidelines of health experts to do our part.

With younger children, however, some experts say to avoid giving them too many details about the science behind social distancing. Dr. Melissa Brown of the University of Pittsburg’s Medical Center said to keep the message simple and positive. “Kids don’t need to know all of those details,” Dr. Brown said. “(Just say) we’re not having play dates because we want to keep our germs to ourselves and not share them and we’re just trying to keep everybody else healthy.”

Are All Play Dates Out of the Question?
The short answer is yes! “The safest thing is just completely avoiding others for the time being,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, M.D., an executive member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases, to the New York Times. Once a staple of many parents and kids’ lives, the play date is another social norm hit hard by the pandemic. If you have young children in the house with you, chances are they already asked to go on a play date. 

Though children may be less susceptible to the worst symptoms of  COVID, they are just as likely, if not more so, to pass on the virus. Manaas Mantravadi, a doctor in Indianapolis told The Today Show, that the difference between kids and adults is that the former are less likely to abide by established conventions to slow the spread of the virus. She said that children on play dates likely won’t be able to consistently manage the CDC’s six-foot rule, to stop the spread of the virus. "It's just not worth the risk in our society," she said. "Social distancing is the most critical and important factor that we, as parents, can control during this COVID-19 outbreak."

At this point, the vast majority of experts strongly advise against kids partaking in any kind of social activities and suggest limiting contact to small groups who are part of an immediate circle of family or other contacts. "I don't think we should be doing informal gatherings. I don't think people should be going out on play dates," explains Dr. Niran Al-Agba, a pediatrician in Washington to USA Today.  

Screen Time May Help Ease Social Isolation
With stay at home orders sweeping the country – currently 82 percent of the country has been ordered to stay at home –it’s inevitable that kids will eventually become stir crazy without some kind of social interaction with peers. During these unprecedented times, experts advise parents consider adjusting their typical screen time rules at home. 

Jenny Radesky, author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 screen-time recommendations, tells the Washington Post that parents today need to reframe their thinking about screens. “It’s a really meaningful way of using technology in the current context when children feel this loss of their school community that they had just a week or two ago.”

Like with most things, there are even apps for play dates. Check out these 4 ways to host a virtual play date recommended by Chicago Parent website. Caribu, perhaps the most popular of the virtual play date sites, is even free during the pandemic