Last summer, with COVID-19 still raging, officials in Philadelphia set out on a mission: Despite the pandemic, despite lockdowns and social distancing, they were determined that children in the city were still going to eat ice cream, still going to chalk sidewalks, still going to shoot SuperSoakers — still going to have fun. “We basically got this mindset that we had to save summer for the kids in Philly,” the city’s parks and recreation commissioner, Kathryn Ott Lovell, told the Globe. Calling on help from the city’s sports teams and neighborhood residents, they organized a series of hundreds of outdoor block parties specifically for children, in every corner of the city, with visits from Mister Softee trucks, cameo appearances by the Philly Phanatic, games, and portable playground equipment.
A year later, neighborhoods and businesses in Boston ought to take a page from Philadelphia’s book — and look for other ways to meet the unique post-pandemic needs of the city’s kids too. COVID-19 has dealt a staggering blow to the mental health of many children, who have spent a year isolated from friends, cooped up inside, absorbing the stress experienced by their family members, and in too many cases coping with the deaths of loved ones. As the threat of COVID-19 recedes, helping a generation of kids heal from those psychological wounds of the last 15 months must become a top priority. And while there’s no single solution, a low-cost, low-tech way to begin that process is to help every child in every neighborhood of Boston have a summer full of fun.
Philadelphia showed how, at a time of crisis, a city can marshal public and private resources on behalf of its children. In response to the city’s call, the Phillies donated 10,000 Wiffle balls. Community development and design nonprofits provided moveable “playscapes” that could be rotated between different streets. The Eagles provided 6,000 backpacks. The Flyers made Gritty available for street dance parties. Neighborhoods across the city agreed to street closures.
Those may seem like small gestures. But after the pandemic — which at various points closed schools, playgrounds, day cares, and camps — simply encouraging kids to reconnect with one another and make up for all the play they lost is crucial.
“Kids need to slowly be having more social interaction and opportunities to control their environment in a way they haven’t in the past,” said Rebecca Newland, an early-childhood psychologist at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island. The pandemic stripped many young kids of the steady stream of new people and stimuli they typically experience and navigate through play. “Play is critical for all kids starting at the youngest ages,” Newland said. “It’s the way that kids learn about the world. That’s how they learn to negotiate their environments, interactions with other kids and people; really everything happens through play.”
Megan Kavanagh, a child psychologist from Marblehead who frequently uses play therapy with her patients, said that “for kids who are very young going through this pandemic, a lot of things get stored at an unconscious level that can’t necessarily be accessed with language and typical cognitive strategies. . . . Play therapy allows kids to process their emotions and experiences in the most natural way possible.” According to Kavanagh, crafting a summer of play is especially beneficial for children because it’s designed around time spent outside.
In Boston, the city is putting extra effort into promoting post-pandemic block parties for neighbors to reconnect with one another, and the city launched a program to provide $500 for groups that want to hold those neighborhood celebrations (e-mail Loveyourblock@boston.gov for details). Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who is running for mayor, is also promoting what she calls a “joy agenda” to help city residents recover by creating outdoor murals and holding outdoor events, and she has asked residents to share their ideas.
So here’s ours: The city should round up philanthropic donors, businesses, and neighborhood groups to make this the best summer possible for Boston’s kids. Create a street-closure program like Philadelphia’s. Get some ice cream trucks on retainer. Anything the city can do will have a positive impact on adults, too. “Research has shown that when you go outside, symptoms of aggression or impulsivity or ADHD decrease. So think of how much less stressful a home environment would be if the symptoms for your child decreased for a bit,” Kavanagh explained. “Remember that parents went through this pandemic, too. When you have a child who’s healthier and happier, that gives the parent the freedom to do their own work — even if it’s just 10 minutes alone in the house to do the laundry and take care of basic mental health things.”
Ott Lovell saw these benefits firsthand on her check-ins with various Playstreet communities in Philadelphia. She remembers one particularly striking conversation with a mother who lost her husband in a motorcycle accident earlier that year and was struggling to raise her two sons alone. The woman praised the program for the joy it brought to her kids before adding, “I took a nap today for the first time. Thank you.”
Alarming spikes in depression, anxiety, and substance use underscore the need to make the mental health of kids of all ages an urgent priority. The CDC found that a quarter of parents of young children (ages 5-12) who were in remote classrooms reported that their kids’ mental health had worsened during the pandemic. An analysis of insurance claims produced the jaw-dropping statistic that among teens in the Northeast, the percentage of claims that involved intentional self-harm more than quadrupled last summer. Public policy worsened the health of students by keeping public school classrooms closed far longer than was medically justified, prolonging loneliness and isolation.
Of course, repairing the harms of the last year will take more than Wiffle ball and water guns. But a summer of fun would be a good start. And by raising public awareness of the mental health challenges the pandemic created for kids, it could set the stage for the healing that must continue after the summer ends.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.