September 23, 2020

When Playtime and Covid Collide

Last month, I popped into one of my favorite local restaurants. The place is known for its eccentric menu, created daily according to the chef’s whim. Pizza ice cream is a staple. But before I entered, the chef scolded me and instructed me to put on my mask.

The chef, by the way, is 6. Her restaurant, like the food itself, is pretend. It’s part of my daughter’s imaginary world. (And as at least one viral Instagram post demonstrates, she’s not the only fake chef slinging creative dishes these days.) Rose, like many children across the country, has begun incorporating the realities of quarantine life into her pretend play. And she’s not alone.

Nicole Campoy Jackson, founder of the mobile cooking tool To Taste, said her 4-year-old son, Finn, has been offering curbside delivery from his own pretend restaurant, crafted with Legos. Most of the customers are Star Wars figurines, she said.

Finn is also planning what he calls a “Goodbye Germs” party, an all-out celebration of when the pandemic has passed. “We have our menu. He wants to have pizza. And anytime I get something new that’s really good,” Jackson, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., said, “if it’s something delicious, he’ll say ‘Oh, we gotta save this for the ‘Goodbye Germs’ party.’”He and his mother also pass the time — and these days, there’s a lot of it — by doing what we all want to do from time to time: closing the windows and screaming at the top of their lungs. “We get really loud and angry and we point to a window and yell, ‘Germs, you get outta here!’” Jackson said.

Taking out the family’s frustrations about the virus by incorporating it into his pretend world is something Jacob Krantz, 3, and his mother, Jessica, have also embraced. She is vice president for Bombas socks, and they have been in Old Westbury, N.Y., during the quarantine. The two of them recently joined forces as The Incredibles — mother as Elastigirl, son as Dash — attacking a supervillain known as the coronavirus. “That day, just out of the blue, he was like, ‘Let’s go save the world, we’re going to kill coronavirus,’” Jessica said. Jacob announced his plans by saying, “First we kill the virus, then we kill the germs, then we kill the colds.”

Child psychiatrists and psychologists say this is all healthy and normal, part of how children process stressful emotions and experiences.

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Updated 2020-07-22T23:59:41.896Z

“Play helps modulate their mood,” said Sandra Russ, Ph.D., a professor and psychologist at Case Western University. “They can express these things in little bits in ways that are manageable for them.” Even when the play includes elements a parent might find troubling, it’s often a sign a child is working through the intensity of living through something difficult, like a global pandemic. “They integrate it, including their fears, and build a story around it,” she said. “That narrative is really important.”

Dr. Russ said studies have shown children in pediatric hospitals who incorporate their experience into play — by performing “surgery” on their stuffed animals, for example — experience less anxiety than those who do not. If your kids are making germs into the bad guy in their superhero adventures, it might give them a similar sense of relief.

“For most kids, this is a healthy and normal way for them to deal with scary things that are going on in their world,” she said. “This is the new monster.”

While the pandemic experience is new to most of us, this is hardly the first time in history that children have felt stress related to a new type of illness. Children would play “AIDS tag” at the height of that pandemic, said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician and the founder of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Kids are adaptable, and for young children, this new reality might just seem like reality.

“There have now been several months of this, so it may become the way they think people interact — that you put on masks, that you go on Zoom,” he said.

For younger children especially, Dr. Schonfeld said, these changes are just another set of new things in their lives, such as adjusting to a new schedule or a uniform when they enter kindergarten. “These changes cause some stress, but most children master the change and this in turn promotes growth and adaptability,” he said.

Psychologists have also studied other, earlier examples of communitywide stress. “For example, during periods of war, children may be enacting battle or fight scenes,” said Malinda Colwell, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University. “It is common for children’s play to reflect what they are experiencing in the world around them and what they see in the media and hear from conversations among adults.”

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Play can also help a child regain a sense of control. “If a child is creating barriers for her stuffed animals with boxes and asking them to stay inside, she may be reflecting her understanding of the quarantine,” Dr. Colwell said. “In being the one giving the commands and creating the conditions of lockdown, the child is in a sense taking control of the situation and is in a position of authority in the play scenario.”

All of that said, parents should remain alert for signs of extraordinary distress — in particular, repetitive pretend play without resolution. “The main characteristic is not whether it makes it into their play, but how the child seems to deal with it in the play,” Dr. Schonfeld said. “If they resolve the conflict, that’s the therapeutic aspect of play.”

If not — if the coronavirus becomes an object of fixation — it could be a sign of deeper distress. One real-life example Dr. Schonfeld mentioned is the story of two sisters who were watching fireworks from a window ledge, when one fell and was killed. The surviving sister began playing a burial game with her doll, obsessively and repeatedly. “She only got more anxious when playing this game,” he said, “and it didn’t help with feelings about her sister’s death.”

It’s also worth observing whether the style of play has changed, or even stopped altogether, said Dr. Rachel Busman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and senior director of the Anxiety Disorder Center at the Child Mind Institute. She mentions unusual levels of clinginess or excess crying.

“We’re all on high alert. We all might be more sensitive or stressed,” she said. “We want kids to be playful and show a range of interests. I’d be concerned if suddenly my child of any age wanted to do this one repetitive thing” — even if that thing is not explicitly Covid-related. “Kids should be flexible, so hopefully they play with a variety of toys and in a variety of ways,” she said.

For most children, pretend play is a powerful way of working through all of this. Roughly a week after shelter-in-place orders went into effect, my kids were playing pretend bus, in which they ride their scooters around our driveway and pretend they’re bus drivers. As usual they stopped at the library and the baseball stadium, but there were also some newly off-limits spots.

My daughter said we could go to the (pretend) playground but not actually play there because of “the sickness.” Same for the (pretend) children’s museum. And yet, navigating the new rules became a new form of play in itself. It was a reminder that, no matter how hard and stressful this time might be, our children are strong, resilient, powerful and, at least in their imaginations, free.

Paul L. Underwood writes frequently on health and culture for national publications and is the father to two young children in Austin, Texas.