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At a nursery in Tourcoing, on the French-Belgian border, children were pictured in drawn-out, spaced apart boxes in a playground. In another photo, they were sat on fluorescent green crosses, ensuring they were socially distanced.
Their friends waved at them from two metres away. They could no longer hug, play ‘tag’ or pull each other to different corners of the playground to trade secrets. Not in a pandemic.
The images, shared on social media, were a stark reminder that if current plans to reopen British schools for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children from June 1 go ahead as planned, it could be the same for children in the UK, too.
But how is social distancing affecting children, if at all, and what could the future impact of these prolonged measures mean?
When I showed the images to my eight-year-old daughter, she gasped. “I’m not doing that!” she said. “If my friends are in a different box to me, how can we go and talk in private? Everyone would hear what you were saying, because you’d have to shout.”
“It’s not fair,” she added. “I thought when you go back to school, everything would be normal. But that isn’t normal.”
Others who saw the images online described them as “distressing”. “This is beyond sad,” one person wrote. “Children denied the right to play with peers. Masked carers making it impossible to read their emotions. Maybe safest for physical health, but at what cost to their social development and mental health?”
The person added: “It’s a cruel setup and better for the kindergarten to remain closed and admit it’s not possible to safely care for children in a way that meets their emotional needs, than treat them this way.”
Considering the ways social distancing might affect our children’s needs is of great importance, says author and parenting expert Liat Hughes Joshi. “School and nursery are not just about education,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Children need the routine of school and to see their friends and their teachers – it’s about so much more than just lessons.”
Hughes believes social distancing in school settings like the playground risks taking away fun, making school a “joyless experience”. But is this a reason not to send them back? “Probably not,” she says.
Developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist, Dr David Whitbread, also believes the benefits of school settings, which offer children opportunities to interact with adults trained to enhance their cognitive and emotional development – while also giving them the chance to mix socially with their peers – risk being undermined by strict social distancing measures.
“If social distancing of this kind has to be applied in these settings, then these offerings become impossible,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“It’s far worse than that,” he adds, “as children can see their young friends and their teachers, but cannot approach them. In which case, the children are far better being at home having fun with their parents and siblings.”
Dr Whitbread also warns of the future impact of social distancing on children. “The longer it lasts, especially for children in emotionally challenging households, the consequences – particularly for their mental health – will become more serious,” he says.
“Given the length of time we’ve been in lockdown already, it would be far better to hold on for a few more weeks [before they go back to school], so children return once self-distancing is no longer required.” However, given the slow easing of lockdown measures Boris Johnson announced, returning to school without social distancing measures may not be possible.
Other researchers suggest social distancing is less likely to impact younger children, but more those in their teens, arguing that early social development can take place within the family – but as kids get older, their friendship group becomes much more important.
But, as Hughes adds, the way children cope with the “new normal” may not be a matter of age, but personality.
““Some kids will cope better with it. Some will breeze through this and be very relaxed.”
“Some kids will cope better with it,” she says. “Some will breeze through this and be very relaxed, while others will kick back against it. Some might see the social side of school as the main draw, and if you take that away and it becomes all about lessons, sitting two metres apart, playing on your own, it might make them more unhappy to go back. Every child is different.”
These are unprecedented times – and it’s impossible to know exactly how, or if, it will impact our children. What parents can do during this time is create an environment at home where their children have the opportunity to develop.
Author Wendy Walsh, a psychologist specialising in attachment, told Heathline parents could do this by providing opportunities for interactive play; respecting their need for space and alone time, particularly for older children; understanding kids’ needs to be online; and encouraging exercise every day – “to help your child keep their equilibrium in these uncertain times.”
Remember, these are challenging times for all families, “but try not to expose your children to parental disagreements or tension,” adds Brendan Street, head of wellbeing at Nuffield Health. “Children need to know that the home is comforting and positive, and with so much external disruption they need things at home to function as normally as possible to help keep them free from worry.”