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Let Your Children Play "Coronavirus" to Process the Pandemic

Dramatic play can help young children understand social distancing.

Now that we’re officially in pandemic mode, with social distancing, quarantine, and other measures to fight the spread of COVID-19, children will have a lot of questions and adults may or may not be able to answer them.

One thing that often happens in strange and scary times and that may seem mean, or weird, or unusual to parents, is playing “COVID tag” or pretending to be sick and/or hospitalized or telling someone else to pretend to be short of breath. Not all children will play illness, but a good number, particularly preschool aged children, will. Especially children who are used to playing their way through their days.

While it may seem unsettling to want to spend time playing “illness,” children naturally play what they know, and reflect in their play concepts and ideas that they don’t quite understand. That means your children may begin to play with the notions of the disease, quarantine, school closures, and emergency medicine. Let them. Not only is it a good idea to follow children’s lead when it comes to their pretend play (guiding when necessary), but it can be helpful to children’s confusion and stress to create meaning out of the varied and large amount of new information they may be processing right now. Play is a way that children can start to understand reality—by engaging in “consequence free” situations. Pretending to go to the hospital is a very different, but related, experience to actually going to the hospital.

This is because one of the primary ways in which drama and pretend play are theorized to help children is through meaning making. This is a vaguely technical term which combines ideas of:

  1. understanding what is happening more deeply,
  2. thinking about the thinking and frame around an idea (i.e. metacognition),
  3. creating a narrative arc, figuring out the cause and effect of a particular event.

How and why does dramatic play do this? By allowing and helping children to create a story out of what would otherwise be a series of unlinked events, and by practicing the various ways in which an event could play out. While doing this, children can also practice their own emotion regulation around an event, and the emotional cues that they give off and read from others.

Given that drama can be a powerful tool to understand what is happening, there are some ways you can encourage your children to play through what is definitely a confusing and scary time.

For the youngest, preschool aged kids:

  1. Have them practice physical distancing with stuffed animals. If your teddy bear is sick, how much space can you give them? What if they sneeze? How many different ways can you greet them without touching them?
  2. Give them the space and time to play doctor, lining up multiple patients, making masks from clothing, etc. They will be seeing these images on the news, over your shoulder, or hear people talking about COVID-19. Don’t stop them from trying to figure it out on their own, and try not to guide their play too much. Give them answers, or set up options, but let them work through it as much as they want to.

For elementary school aged kids:

  1. Give them a frame or narrative to work through. "Let’s pretend that I am an older relative, and you want to say hi. How many ways can you do that without touching me?"
  2. Show them pictures of what hospitals look like, especially if they know someone who may be sick. Let them take what information they want, but don’t force them to play through hospital if they don’t want to.
  3. If kids are teasing each other by touching and yelling “corona!” or a similar game, don’t just tell them to stop, but explain why that might be scary, and perhaps why they were using the virus as the thing to run away from.
  4. Use the scientific and scholastic resources out there to teach about germs, hand washing, and illness, and then let children process in their own speed and time. We’re in for a long few weeks or months, and forcing understanding won’t necessarily help.

For everyone:

Join in!! If your child says "you pretend THIS and I'll pretend THAT," now is a great time to go with it. It will help you escape from reality for a minute, it will show your child that you are there for them, and it will help them work out their emotions and fears as they see you reacting in this safe, contained, pretend space.

The best thing to do is follow children’s lead. If they want to play something else entirely, do that. If they want to play COVID? Let them. Guide them through understanding and answering questions, but don’t stop them from trying to figure it out for themselves through play.