Play and Learning in a Time of Physical Distance

Since the beginning of this unusual time in our world we have consistently heard the words “the new normal” and “social distancing”. They have become a regular part of our conversations and how we look at the world. While we all know there is change happening in our lives, we also know that things will eventually become steady and safe again. I have heard several in the social/emotional profession call for a change in how we use this language, and I must agree. Normal has changed, for now, and my hope is that it will be a better normal. As for social distancing, I would rather think of it as a physical distance, for now. We are still social creatures and we seek out social connections in one way or another. This is especially true for young children.

There is a lot going on right now our world and children are noticing, talking about, and expressing them in their own way. Play is essential as children attempt to make sense of their world in this way. Pretend play scenarios focus on what they are learning to understand, from taking care of baby dolls, or taking them to the doctor to get a shot. This is one way that they process their experiences. In telling stories, building towns with blocks, writing, drawing, or painting, (even in scribbles), we get a glimpse into their inner world. Outdoors the play becomes even more active as the space gives them room to run, jump, and act out more elaborate pretend play scenes where they get to save the world. They use language they have heard to ask questions and express their childhood thoughts about what is going on for them. All of this is social play, all of this is learning, and all of this should be supported. Especially in this time of physical distancing.

So how do we, those who care for children in our homes and in group care, support children as they navigate their world? It is an important question. It is also important to address it from the child’s perspective, meet them where they are in their process of understanding, and support them in a way that helps develop their sense of safety. This is a question that has always been important, even before a virus shook our world. My answer to that is, as it has always been, is to engage with them in their play and learning experiences. They will lead the direction of the experiences, and we will guide their learning through interaction. In childcare, the smaller group sizes allow for more responsive interactions between adults and children. At home or in a childcare home, there is much more time for one on one interactions as well as interactions with multi-age groups. This is a time to socially engage at a deeper level, play to support learning, and above all play for the sake of play and relieve stress.

So, stay social, even at a distance. Stay social, even if it means your face is covered and you are wearing a smock to cover your clothes. Stay social as you wash your hands and help children wash theirs. Model the safety practices and make them playful learning experiences.

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