How to keep kids social during a time of social distancing

Running out of ideas that involve kids endlessly video-chatting with friends? Here are some ideas for deeper connections.

Editor’s note: Staying connected these days often means relying on technology and social media. If your child is under 13 years old, always make sure that they’re communicating only from accounts established by an adult family member and that the child is monitored closely.

Your child’s school has been closed for two weeks, and everyone’s starting to go stir-crazy. She’s begging for a playdate, and her friend next door seems healthy. You know you’re supposed to practice social distancing, but the local park is pretty big to move around in. Could it really hurt to head out with a friend just this once?

Unfortunately, the answer is pretty clear. Although doctors think that children who contract coronavirus often won’t be as affected as adults, they can still be carriers, and therefore infect other people. Some studies suggest that the virus can be transmitted before symptoms appear, making it even more important to follow the rules. “The goal here is to create space between people to limit transmission,” says epidemiologist Keri Althoff of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

That’s not easy when parents and kids are stuck at home for weeks, with no idea when things will return to normal. “I have two children myself, and I know it’s hard,” Althoff says. But it’s all about “flattening the curve”—reducing the number of infected people so our healthcare workers have enough resources to help those who truly need it. “If people get sick too fast, we’ll lose that,” Althoff says. “Parents and families are playing a big role in slowing the pandemic.”

But social distancing doesn’t mean complete isolation. After all, maintaining relationships with others is important for children. “It supports their social emotional development and strengthens their social emotional skills,” says Melissa Brymer, director of the Terrorism and Disaster Program at UCLA / Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress in Los Angeles. The trick is to find creative ways to socialize from afar. Here are a few ways to do just that.

Get outside together. California has been reported as leading the nation in containment efforts by doing things such as closing public playgrounds and beaches. Still, according to Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, if no one in your home has symptoms, then you don’t need to practice social distancing within a family unit. “Take a walk, go for a hike, play in your yard,” she says. If you run into a neighbor, give a literal shout-out from across the street, or walk “together” at a safe distance.

Dance together. Get kids moving—and social—with free apps like GoNoodle, which has three- to five-minute dance routines that they can share. For instance, they can send friends a link to the dance, then have everyone take videos of themselves to swap later. Or just boogie together during a video call!

Join an art class. Does your child have artsy friends? Invite them to break out their supplies for an online activity hosted by a professional artist, such as an illustration or stop-motion animation class. Kids can share photos with their buds and chat about their work afterward.

Take a virtual field trip.
School trips have been canceled, but classmates can still check out their favorite spots together through zoo and aquarium webcams broadcasting the animal action. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, and Cincinnati Zoo's daily "home safaris” on Facebook Live are great options. Students can tune in at the same time, then call or text each other about what they see. They can also turn the “trip” into a game. Terry Williamson, a Los Angeles middle school teacher who has a six- and nine-year-old, recommends the national parks’ webcams. “The kids can guess when Old Faithful will go off at Yellowstone, or whether there’s snow in Glacier National Park, then go online to see,” she says.

Try low-tech talk. Connecting during times like these sometimes just means letting other people know you’re there—and seeing how other people express themselves. Children can show solidarity with a handmade lawn sign or colorful messages of encouragement drawn with chalk on the sidewalk, then take pictures to share of what other people are doing. Kids can also dust off some low-tech ways of communicating, such as turning a flashlight on and off to signal a friend across the street (maybe by even learning Morse code) or breaking out the walkie-talkies.

Connect more in-person. Isolating together can provide opportunities for families to connect more deeply with each other. Brymer suggests starting a story chain, where one person starts a tale and each family member contributes, creating a complete story. Other activities can also expand children’s social skills. Include them in tasks they’re not usually a part of, such as prepping a meal or fixing things around the house. You’ll be encouraging more communication, expanding their skill set, and simply creating bonding opportunities.

Take time out. The one person you yourself needs to connect to? Just look in the mirror. “Part of our schedule needs to be some down time or quiet time,” Brymer says. “Those [moments] could include breathing exercises to keep calm or yoga.” Even daily movie time can allow everyone to veg out in their own heads for a bit.

“For younger kids, consider just having periods where everybody can rest,” Brymer says. “And that allows the adults to rejuvenate, as well.”

These aren’t easy times, but the more connected we feel, the stronger we’ll be together—even when we’re apart.

Read This Next

STEM tricks to teach your at-home cooks
Flower power: Combining science and art to get kids exploring
Why tiny art can be huge for kids