Learning through play
Experts in the child development field say that there is a kind of learning that happens when kids socialize.
By being around other kids their age, said University of Oregon researcher Phil Fisher, children develop so-called “executive functioning” skills. Those include things like impulse control, the ability to hold multiple thoughts simultaneously, and the mental flexibility to solve nuanced problems.
Those executive skills aid the development of traditional academic skills like numeracy and literacy, said Fisher.
“Those skills don’t just develop in a vacuum,” he added. “They develop in the context of being in situations where you have to interact with your peers.”
Thanks to copious testing and research, there’s data that suggests students who fall behind early in an academic skill like reading will fall further behind their peers as the years pass.
It’s hard to know whether that same kind of phenomenon exists in social development — in part, because there’s never been this kind of widespread interruption to social life.
“We’ve never been through anything like this,” said Fisher.
Instinctually, Fisher believes most children will be fine. They’ll find ways to recover what’s lost with the help of parents, interventionists, and their natural resiliency.
Fisher worries most about children from poor backgrounds whose parents have been working outside the home — the type of kids who have been most isolated during the pandemic and are least likely to have counseling services moving forward.
“We should be very concerned when kids haven’t gotten that stimulation,” said Fisher. “The challenge is, how do you tell that so you’re reassuring people who should be reassured, but also not letting policymakers off the hook?”
As schools slowly move toward a new version of normal, there comes a question of priorities.
Much of the chatter revolves around summer school, tutoring, and other efforts focused on whatever academic gaps emerged during the past year.
Julie Hubbard, from the University of Delaware, hopes administrators and teachers will make time, however, for the reintroduction of social life. Let kids play. Let them interact.
“There’s a lot of catching up to do on all fronts,” said Hubbard.
She also thinks parents and teachers need to keep a close eye on the relatively small subset of kids who’ve benefited from this break in social routines — including children who were bullied in pre-pandemic times.
“Those are the kids we need to watch very carefully,” said Hubbard. “They may have viewed [online schools] as a reprieve.”
The kids in Philadelphia Youth Basketball’s pandemic pod program say their daily afternoon hangouts offer a much-needed break from the isolation and distraction of home.
Instead of spending all day in bed or fending off chatty siblings, they get a chance to hang out with one another.
As Corey, a seventh grader, put it: “We can make friends here.”