Alice McGraw, 2 years old, was walking with her parents in Lake Tahoe this summer when another family appeared, heading in their direction. The little girl stopped.
“Uh-oh,” she said and pointed: “People.”
She has learned, her mother said, to keep the proper social distance to avoid risk of infection from the coronavirus. In this and other ways, she’s part of a generation living in a particular new type of bubble — one without other children. They are the toddlers of Covid-19.
Gone for her and many peers are the play dates, music classes, birthday parties, the serendipity of the sandbox or the side-by-side flyby on adjacent swings. Many families skipped day care enrollment in the fall, and others have withdrawn their children amid the new surge in coronavirus cases.
With months of winter isolation looming, parents are growing increasingly worried about the developmental effects the ongoing social deprivation are having on their very young children.
“People are trying to weigh pros and cons of what’s worse: putting your child at risk for Covid or at risk for severe social hindrance,” said Suzanne Gendelman, whose daughter, Mila, 14 months old, regularly spent rug time with Alice McGraw before the pandemic.
“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo than she’s seen other kids,” Ms. Gendelman said.
It is too early for published research about the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on very young children, but childhood development specialists say that most children are likely to be OK because their most important relationships at this age are with parents.
Still, a growing number of studies highlight the value of social interaction to brain development. Research shows that neural networks influencing language development and broader cognitive ability get built through verbal and physical give-and-take — from the sharing of a ball to exchanges of sounds and simple phrases.
These interactions build “structure and connectivity in the brain,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They seem to be brain feed.”
Dr. Hirsh-Pasek characterized the current environment as a kind of “social hurricane” with two major risks: Infants and toddlers don’t get to interact with one another and, at the same time, they pick up signals from their parents that other people might be a danger.
“We’re not meant to be stopped from seeing the other kids who are walking down the street,” she said.
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