Children develop in leaps and bounds during their baby and preschool years. As a result, most parents are acutely aware of the importance of mindfully planning their child’s days so that optimal learning experiences are created. With masks, distance learning, limitations on sports and limited social interactions, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed how we raise our children. Mostly these changes cause numerous concerns for parents.
An independent global survey of more than 15 000 parents in 22 countries (South African included) conducted by OnePoll in July 2020 showed that more than 70% of parents felt concerned about how this global pandemic might affect their child’s social and emotional development. As we are all treading on unknown territory, it would be ideal to look at current research recommendations to foster healthy social and emotional skills in our children during this time. Here are three science-backed activities that could make a difference.
Play with dolls or action figurines
Research done in 2020 and published in the reputable Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal indicated compelling evidence. The first of its kind! Evidence showed that doll play activates brain regions that are associated with social information processing and empathy. This meant that playing with dolls enables children to rehearse, use and perform these skills even when playing independently. Another revelation made in this study was that the same benefit was derived for boys and girls. Thus, the researchers concluded that playing with dolls offers positive benefits in preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy.
The results of this study could reassure parents in knowing that even while their child is not playing with a friend, they could still practise social skills while playing with a doll on their own.
Play music together
Another study published in the journal of Evolution and Human Behaviour in 2010 found that joint music-making, including singing and dancing together as a family, promoted pro-social behaviour in young children. More specifically, music appears to be a tool that fosters social bonding and group cohesion. This feeling of closeness to other family members ultimately increased the child’s spontaneous cooperation and helpful behaviour in children as young as four years old.
Practically this could mean that the collective intention and shared goal to sing and move together as a family can effectively satisfy the intrinsic human desire to share emotions, experiences, and activities with others.
Practice paying attention to each other
Another important social skill is the ability to pay attention to another person while you are interacting with them. However, the sad reality is that when the pandemic moved in with us through our front door, its friend ‘Mr. Screen-time’ strolled in casually through the backdoor!
A long-term study of more than 300 children in 2019 was published in the journal of Computers in Human Behaviour. This study found that children with the heaviest screen use were also the most likely to only focus on their own needs instead of on the needs of the other people they were interacting with daily. Also, little children are egocentric in nature and outgrow this as they develop socially and through healthy social human interaction. However, with the inevitable extra screen time now as part of our lives, this added self-centred behaviour tends to lead to more social problems in general with family and friends.
Luckily, there was some good news as well! The study found that regular, daily activities apart from screen technology could help children focus and pay attention to the people around them. For example, joint activities such as cooking meals and gardening, reading stories, and playing outside can help a child maintain the social skill of paying attention to others.
Family time can potentially make the most significant contribution to conversational and social skills. Therefore, make sure to plan for these interactions and to do so without the distraction of any screens or phones.