Of all the adjustments that this pandemic has wrought, perhaps the saddest for my kids — who don’t understand its existential implications — is that their social life stinks. My 9-year-old has resorted to lonely bike rides. He cruises the neighborhood with my husband, pausing in front of his friends’ abodes. Then he texts the family inside, who come to the front stoop for a jailhouse wave. It’s like a bad John Hughes movie. Sometimes he uses Facebook Messenger to make videos of llama faces.
“Play has healing powers,” says Saki Iwamoto, a health and wellness educator with the Boston Children’s Museum. “Play is the best thing we can do for our kids.”
So what if that sense of play is completely upended, and your child’s only friend is a squabbling sibling — or a screen?
“What typically happens is either withdrawal or bouncing around. You can think of this as children managing their stimulation level,” says longtime Brookline psychologist Larry Cohen, who specializes in children and play. “Groups of friends regulate each other in normal times.”
Without that calibration, kids have to self-regulate, so they might act silly and provoke arguments to let off steam that would normally be released on the playground.
“They want to make something happen,” says Cohen. “The physicality is missing for a lot of children. It’s like monkeys grooming one another.”
Grooming aside — that’s a different story for a different day — here are some high- and low-tech ideas for keeping elementary-schoolers connected and engaged with their friends, even from afar.
1. Reframe your perception of screens. Parents have been conditioned to think that screens is a dirty word. But instead of watching YouTube videos featuring children unwrapping boxes (are your kids obsessed with this? Mine are), have them make videos of doodles to share with pals. Set up a Zoom for them to play Mad Libs together. Get over the fact that they’re using screens, because this will be the way of the world for a while. “Instead of thinking about how many hours are allowed, think about variety of interactions and types of engagement,” Iwamoto says. Go active, not passive.
2. Try something new at Outschool. This online learning platform has tons of unusual hourlong virtual classes with subjects kids probably won’t find at traditional school, from Andy Warhol-inspired Pop Art to Improv. Enroll as a one-off for roughly $12 apiece — no hefty enrollment fees. Classmates and teachers interact using Zoom. My son is coordinating activities with friends; next week, they’re navigating an escape room together. (Hope he’s trapped long enough for me to work.)
3. Create an ongoing story. Set your kids up with a Google Doc. Have them write one or two lines of a story, and then send it to a friend to add a few lines, suggests Cohen, and watch the plot unfold. It’s creative, interactive, and is similar to having a pen pal — with quicker response times. When it’s done, have the participants read aloud on Zoom.
4. Make videos of hobbies. “So many friendships in elementary school are based on shared interests and activities,” Cohen says. Kids need to feel that camaraderie. So encourage them to make videos (Marco Polo is one easy app) and send them to pals, whether it’s of an indoor obstacle course (you don’t need your couch cushions, do you?) or parkour (in this case, a polite term for scaling furniture). A quieter kid might have fun reviewing a book and sending it to a friend, or filming a cooking show.
This has other benefits, too. “Kids are used to a thousand little micro-interactions all day long — tuning in, matching facial expressions, the tilt of a head, breathing,” he says. Videos aren’t perfect, but they can almost mimic those connections.
5. Become a graffiti artist. Brindha Muniappan, senior director of museum experience at the Discovery Museum in Acton, suggests taking kids on a walk to draw chalk art on friends’ driveways. Other neighborhoods have organized bear or shamrock hunts. Help kids leave the objects in their windows; ask pals to look for them and report back.
6. Dig out some ice, ice, baby. No, not for a mixed drink. (OK, maybe.) Iwamoto suggests letting kids play scientist with Tupperware and water, finding stuff around the house to freeze. “It’s silly, simple, and it’s wet,” she says. My son has taken to freezing and unfreezing markers. Text the photos to pals.
7. Go on a scavenger hunt. One family recently drew on rocks with chalk, numbering each from 1 to 30. Hide them throughout the neighborhood for other friends to find.
8. Have virtual lunch. If your kid misses cafeteria camaraderie, set them up with lunch and a private space, then let them Zoom with their favorite dining companions. No, they won’t be able to trade snacks, but it’s a dose of normalcy (and they may even have more time to eat).
9. Enjoy an old-fashioned porch-sit. If your child’s friends are also nearby neighbors, set up a chair outside. Have your child chat with a pal more than 6 feet apart. (Make sure your beloved is old enough to appreciate the point of distancing.) One family recently did magic tricks and exercises together, in between chatting. Move over, Richard Simmons.
10. Find a favorite game app. My older son has become a chess fiend, using the Chess Time app to play against his pals. Bonus: There’s also a chat feature, so they can trash-talk one another in between moves, just like at school.
Lastly, don’t be afraid of the word “bored.” Yes, our children will be bored during this crisis. They will whine. They will confront entire days without structure or orchestrated activities, kind of like what we went through growing up. I recently told my son that if this pandemic had happened in the 1980s, when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have had screens, apps, or even cable for a distraction. He was appalled — and somewhat intrigued.
“Boredom can foster creativity in kids and will ultimately allow them to experiment with things they’re curious about from a self-motivated, kid-led perspective,” Iwamoto says. Just hide the electronics and permanent markers.