Edupreneur Serena Fan On How The Pandemic Is Impacting Children's Socialisation Skills
As 2021 comes to a close, we are also concluding the second year in a pandemic. We have all been impacted by Covid-19 to varying degrees, with almost 250 million people having become infected so far. But a long-term consequence of the pandemic that is less talked about is its impact on children's social and emotional development. This is a topic that Serena Fan, founder of the Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) in Hong Kong is keenly aware of.
Fan is a passionate early-childhood educator who created CDM in 2018 to provide children in Hong Kong with a space to learn through play. The pandemic caused her museum to close for several months, but when it reopened recently, Fan noticed that many children, mostly aged three or under, crying whenever a member of the floor staff would approach them.
She came up with two hypotheses as to why this was occurring: “[One,] the children had been cooped up at home for so many months and with playgrounds also being closed, they are used to only seeing whoever they live with. [Two,] with everyone wearing face masks, our staff’s warm facial expressions can't be seen, so being approached by a tall stranger, from a toddler’s perspective, could have been quite scary.”
We speak to her here to find out more about Covid-19's impact on the development of children's socialisation skills and how parents can mitigate them.
What developmental opportunities are children missing because of the lockdowns and restrictions caused by the pandemic?
Children are missing the opportunity to develop and practise social skills such as turn-taking, sharing, reading facial expressions and learning how to play with others. Physical development, such as gross motor skills, may also lag behind as they are mostly stuck at home with limited space to run around. I have also heard that at some primary schools, recess is no longer a time to run around. They can only sit at their desks to eat their snack or are restricted to playing within their own “square” with little chance to fully move their bodies.
What are the short and long-term effects of this lack of social interactions for children?
The short-term effect is that children will have less practice when it comes to interacting with other people. The long-term effects are difficult to say, as children are extremely resilient and fast learners.
Should this be a concern for parents, particularly in the long run?
Parents should not be overly worried about the long-term implications as humans are intrinsically social beings. With sound understanding, effective adult modelling and opportunities to practice [their social skills], children should be able to bounce back comfortably.
As cities slowly open up, how can parents help their children to develop the essential social skills within the restrictions in the meantime?
In many parts of Asia, we are still required to wear a mask. So the number one challenge is teaching our children to understand unspoken social cues, like facial expressions. Fortunately, there are wonderful picture storybooks on emotions and their associated facial looks that adults can read to children. Parents can also start pointing out facial expressions in general storybooks or when they're watching a show with their kids. This can help children to see what typical faces look like, so once we are able to stop wearing masks, they won't be in shock at seeing entire faces!
At CDM, we have an exhibit called Puzzling Expressions that was well-liked pre-Covid but is now an even more important piece, as it explores how a change in a different part of the face can convey a completely different message. Having such visual [explanations] are great for children to cement their understanding of social cues.
Also, given that we now rely more heavily on using words to communicate in place of facial expressions, adults can model appropriate behaviours and phrases to help toddlers who are just learning to speak. For example, saying things like “May I have a turn?” or “I am almost done with this. You can have a turn after” or “May I play with you?” Teaching them such phrases will be useful, as they'll learn to use what they've heard when they have the opportunity to play with their peers.
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