by Nancy Blanning
Things are different now. The pandemic is subsiding, to everyone’s great relief, though it is not gone. We weathered two-and-a-half years of anxiety and isolation as best we could. Everyone had to make sacrifices and realize that we did not have the freedom to go or do usual things—being with family and friends, sharing meals, attending artistic and cultural events, playing on athletic teams and attending sporting events, going to school and work. This health emergency deprived everyone of practical things in our daily lives that we have been able to depend upon without worry. Grocery shopping is now a relatively easy thing to do again. We adults can still read, write, and do math at pre-pandemic levels because these skills were already in place, not waiting to be developed. Basically, the skills we have are still there both practically and socially.
We have also been deprived of many things that nourish and fill our souls with beauty, encouragement, refreshment, companionship, exploration, and fun. These opportunities are now returning to our great relief. Symphonies are playing, and theaters are performing live. Our children can play sports, and we can go again to fill the cheering spectator rows. We have done these things before and can begin to do them again. Phew! Some adjusted “normal” is returning to our lives. Even though we might feel a bit dusty in resuming social activities, we have had practice in being comfortable with other people before and can bridge the gap to renewed community life without too much of a stretch.
For our children, however, the situation is different. Children aged three and under have no memory of previous social experience because they have not had it. Children over three have memories of seeing only a few people outside their immediate family. They could not have playdates, mingle with children at the park, or create interactive play with the joys and challenging tussles of encountering others. The pandemic put children’s opportunities for typical social and emotional development on pause.
Teachers describe that previously reasonable expectations no longer fit. Interest and attention to group activities are different. Children are less responsive and more inclined to follow individual agendas. They seem more anxious and socially unpracticed. Typical behaviors for children are now more extreme. What we previously called quiet and shy may now be timid and fearful to an extreme. Boisterous rowdiness and physical energy frequently fall into disruptive and aggressive-seeming defiance. This is a real “ouch” for everyone.
So what to do? The first step is acknowledging that we have all been robbed of precious experiences. This is a reality. The pandemic has been a huge interruption and deprivation for everyone, children especially. Previously typical opportunities to grow and practice learning and doing life were halted. Now we have to say, “Where were we?” when the pause struck and pick up the developmental thread from that moment, so the story continues as a “whole,” not a “hole.”
Where were little children? What do they need for an abundant, enriching opportunity to fill in what the pandemic has interrupted?
- Children need running, playing, risking, and exploring to develop their physical bodies. In doing this, they build strong, healthy neurology and sensory systems that literally depend upon lots of free, unscripted, self-initiated challenging movement and exploration. Our children will be gifted by being outdoors as much as possible where this play is most feasible. Go to the park more often, take family walks daily—even a ten-minute stroll around the block. Play running-chasing games. Get breathless, pant, and laugh. We all need these things in our daily lives, no matter our age, but children need these urgently.
- Children need to see real things and activities. The pandemic made us all screen-engaged and dependent, and now children need to see real trees, flowers, and plants. They need to touch, see, hear, and smell phenomena in the natural world to become true citizens of the earth. To come to know and revere this earthly home, they need these experiences in real time, not virtual display. Walk around your backyard and really look to see what is there. Keep a bird feeder stocked to invite birds to come to show their lives. Make your excursions to parks and hiking trails, not to recreation/entertainment enterprises.
- Children need to see real people doing real work, not watching entertaining videos to fill time and keep them occupied. Little children need to see real work—cooking, house cleaning, laundry folding, mopping, tidying—to have purposeful activities to imitate. Older children need to be involved in these to learn that human beings have responsibilities to care for their surroundings and cooperate with others to keep life going. Everyone helps.
And to the prominent question of this discussion, what do children need to build their social, resilient, confident social selves? They need to be with people. They also need to be with caring adults who are transforming their pandemic-induced social anxieties and fears into relaxation and enjoyment of being with others again. Besides playdates and small gatherings, to begin with, take walks. Smilingly greet passersby that you do not know with a friendly “hello.” Show our children that we are not worried about being with others but actually look forward to old and new friendships.
The pandemic has heightened a kind of existential fear that is always lurking within us. A friend described how she was walking on the sidewalk in her neighborhood and approached a house where children were playing in the yard. Upon seeing her, the children frantically ran to get far away from her. Their parent, who was nearby, commended the children for running away from this unknown person.
Children are unconsciously influenced by the attitudes of the adults around them. They feel and absorb our anxieties and fears. For their sake, this is something we need to face and work to transform. Can we practice within ourselves a different response? As caring adults, we might say, “Ah, this is a friend we do not yet know. Let us go to say hello and find out who they are.” To acknowledge others without fear and suspicion is the foundation of a healthy, healing social life. May we strive toward doing so.
BIO: Nancy Blanning is an early childhood educator with a special interest in movement and “incarnational support” for young children. She served as a kindergarten teacher and member of the educational support staff at the Denver Waldorf School, from which she recently retired after almost forty years. Her dedicated focus now is adult teacher development and professional deepening as co-director of early childhood teacher training at Sunbridge Institute in Spring Valley, NY, and as guest faculty at other teacher training programs. Practical and compassionate support for parents is another of her passions. She and her husband are parents of four Waldorf graduates and grandparents to eight. Grandparenting is Nancy’s greatest joy, along with teaching. She writes these columns on behalf of WECAN—Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America. Please visit the website at waldorfearlychildhood.org.