We can’t expect young children to truly understand what social distancing looks like in public spaces. Just like any skill, we have to break it down into small steps and meet them where they are developmentally.
It’s important to understand that the ability to inhibit our actions actually comes from a very high-level brain function (executive function) that is NOT hard-wired in kids yet. This is why they need a lot of practice holding back. We ARE naturally social beings, so it is especially hard for kids to not follow this natural instinct of being close to others. Eventually, this will come with practice and an understanding of why we are doing it, but they will need a lot of practice and your help in the meantime.
The good news? This is an opportunity to grow those executive functioning skills right now.
Why are we social distancing?
Kids need to know why this is important and feel reassured that adults will keep them safe.
“It’s important to make space for others to keep them healthy. When we cough or sneeze we can shoot our germs up to 6 feet into the air! If those germs get onto someone else, it can make them sick. This is why it’s so important to make space for others when we are on a walk in our neighborhood. This keeps us all healthy and safe.”
Here are some ideas for teaching and practicing:
What does it look like to make space for others? How far away is 6 feet? When we are going for neighborhood walks, bike rides or scooter rides, we need to make space for others by staying 6 feet away. You can teach kids about making space by being specific.
“Okay, before we go on our walk we need to talk about making space for others. You know how we are being extra careful not to spread sickness in our community? In order to keep others safe, we need to make space when we see our neighbors on the street.”
“Making space means, we need to be about 6 feet away from others. Let me show you what that looks like.”
Use concrete examples to show them what 6 feet looks like. You can use the distance of your arms, pool noodles or sticks, or even have fun with a measuring tape. Draw a big circle on the ground with chalk to show what that feels like and take turns getting in the middle.
Check for understanding
A great way to build problem-solving skills is to ask questions. Ask your kiddos to come up with ideas along your walk. If you reach a narrow sidewalk or you see people a block ahead, what can you do?
“See that person walking their dog down the sidewalk. Where can we stand to make space?”
“If there’s nowhere safe to stand how else can we make space? What if we crossed the street?”
Supervision, Supervision, Supervision
Young children (under 5) cannot be expected to stay away from others. They need you to physically stand with them and likely hold their hand until others pass. It is a great chance to pause, get down to their level, and give them a warm hug or smile or even take a moment to observe something in nature.
6 feet away
Turn this into a fun science experiment! Come up with hypotheses and test those ideas! Get some tape or chalk and mark the sidewalk to show what 6 feet looks like. Hold a tape measure at 6 feet and practice being at different places on your sidewalk to see if you are far enough away.
Games to teach inhibition
Play games to help practice inhibition and delay of gratification. Old school games like Red Light, Green Light, Mother May I, Simon Says, and dance and freeze games are all great practice for littles. Simple board games that require turn-taking also help with holding back and waiting.
Educational game companies:
Online Brain boosters:
More help for talking to kids about COVID-19 can be found here.