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Parents Supporting Early Learning During COVID-19

The Bipartisan Policy Center recognizes the importance of child care and early learning in the lives of children and families. Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the world we knew two months ago has drastically changed, upending our daily routines and what we had once known as “normal.” This blog series is an effort to support parents of young children, many of whom are asking for guidance on how to best nurture, educate, and support their children during this time. 

Parents and children of all ages have had their lives and routines disrupted by COVID-19. BPC’s recent survey with Morning Consult found that only 14% of households had not experienced any change in work situation. Some parents have moved to remote work, while others are experiencing changes in hours, employer closures, and layoffs. A majority (60%) of parents also report that their child care provider has closed. Children have been taken out of their daily routine and are missing their regular interactions with providers, teachers, and other children.

Many parents have taken over their child’s care full time, often while juggling work and care for other family members. Even under the best circumstances, parents do not always feel confident about their ability to play or struggle with busy schedules. Between managing their own stress, workplace demands, and children’s needs and behaviors, parents may not feel prepared to create activities that occupy their children throughout the day and promote development while also managing these other responsibilities.

Research in child development over the last several decades has found that children are learning from birth. Parents play a key role in supporting this development, as young children learn through play and exploration with the support of caring adults. As many parents adjust to increased caregiving time and try to navigate the variety of resources and activities available, there are some guiding principles to keep in mind.

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  • Young children learn through play. Older children likely have worksheets and assignments to complete as part of their distance learning. Parents may expect that younger children also need these kinds of focused, academic materials to keep them on a path of school-readiness. However, learning in early care and education environments is centered around play. Through play, young children develop their cognitive, social, physical, and literacy skills.

  • Parents have a key role in supporting learning and development. In the first five years of life, children’s brains are developing rapidly. One of the best ways to support growth and development is through serve and return, or back and forth interactions between an adult and child. Parents can and likely already do incorporate these exchanges into children’s daily activities, such as getting dressed or helping with chores.

  • Open-ended materials can promote creative play. Children are spending more time than usual in their home environments and may grow tired of playing with their same toys. Toys that have a specific purpose or goal, or those connected to movie or TV characters, can limit children to follow a certain script, story, or set of rules when playing. Open-ended materials, like playdough, blocks, and Legos, and even household materials, like cardboard boxes, give children a blank slate and provide opportunities for children play creatively and make decisions.

  • Independent play offers opportunities for learning. It is unrealistic to expect that any parents, especially those working remotely, can spend every minute of every day fully engaged in play with young children. Using the principles of serve and return, parents can support independent, child-driven play that promotes children’s autonomy and helps grow their attention span, while also giving parents a chance to focus on work and other needs. This resource from Zero to Three provides guidance on encouraging independent play.

  • Social-emotional development is a critical part of early learning. Though children may not understand what a pandemic is, they know that their day-to-day lives look different and can pick up on the worries and stress of adults in their lives. However, they are still developing the language and skills to express their emotions constructively. Stress responses in infants and toddlers may look like more crying and temper tantrums, irritability, and increased separation anxiety. Children 3 to 5 years old often experience regression, returning to behaviors they had when they were younger, such as losing progress in potty-training or sucking their thumb.

    Additionally, in their first few years, children are developing their attention span. In the first year, children have an attention span of one to three minutes. This grows to five to six minutes for 2-year-olds, around eight minutes for 3-year-olds, and up to 10 minutes for 4-year-olds. Children quickly losing interest in an activity does not mean it was a bad activity; it is just a reflection of their developmental stage. Understanding where children’s limitations are can help prevent stress and frustration for both parents and children.

There are many resources for parents during this time, but it is important to not feel overwhelmed. Below is a compiled a list of resources, videos, and activities for young children.

  • If you are looking for specific activities:
    • Jumpstart: Bilingual (English/Spanish) storybook read-alouds and activity guides.
    • PBS Kids: A tool that suggests activities and resources based on a child’s age and selected topic. Choices include topics like literacy, math, and science as well as emotions, self-awareness, and social skills.
      • Sesame Street has also launched the Caring for Each Other initiative in response to COVID-19, which includes messages and activities from and with characters on the show.
    • Zero to Three: Bilingual (English/Spanish) at-home activity guide.
  • Too Small to Fail: An indoor activities toolkit, which may be especially useful for families with little to no access to outdoor spaces during this time.
  • Brookings: A guide to keeping children healthy and happy that includes potential games and activities.
  • If you are looking for tips on talking to children about COVID-19:
    • CDC: Guidance for talking to children about COVID-19 in five languages.
    • Zero to Three: Answers to coronavirus questions from young children.
  • If you are looking for resources for children with special needs:
    • Child Mind Institute: Resources for dealing with anxiety and supporting children on the spectrum and children with ADHD.
    • Johns Hopkins Medicine: Guidance for caregivers supporting children on the autism spectrum during COVID-19.

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