As many countries around the world emerge from lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our relationships in unprecedented ways. It forced us to live further apart from others and also closer together with some people, such as our family. While the high-pressure environment of isolation combined with financial stress brought by the pandemic has left cracks in family relationships and a rise in marital conflicts, children’s friendships have formed within neighborhoods.
Children’s friendships in the age of coronavirus
Wayne State University’s Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences Julie Wargo Aikins shared that neighborhood-based friendships among kids are making a comeback in the age of coronavirus. In the Midwestern town in the US where she lives, the clinical psychologist observed that her neighborhood is full of kids on bicycles and she has noticed chalk drawings or hopscotch boards on the sidewalk. There are also kids playing ball and jumping rope.
In the eight years since she lived in that area, she has never seen such a thing before and as someone who studies children’s friendships, she is fascinated by this kind of development. She added that kids’ social worlds have been upended because of the pandemic. Extracurricular and school activities were suspended as schools were closed. As adolescents and older children maintained their friendships through social media, this approach is likely available to younger children. This means that their social needs are not met, which is the reason why there has been a resurgence of childhood friendships in the neighborhoods.
Changing locations for play
In the last 30 years, children’s friendships have been forged during extracurricular activities and in classrooms. This is because, on average, they spend 6.5 hours a day in school and 57% of them spend most days or every day in extracurricular activities. In a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, it found that seven in 10 (73%) parents in the US say their kids participated in sports or athletic activities in the past year while 60% say their school-aged kids participated in religious instruction or youth group in the past year.
The school setting provided them with opportunities to make friends, learn, and develop skills for social relationships, and understand expected social behavior.
Meanwhile, some 47% of American parents whose child or children play games or watch videos on a typical day believe that their kids are spending too much time on TV, videos, and games. Before the advent of technology that changed the way children play, children’s friendships were also developed and formed within the US neighborhood. On average, friends lived less than a quarter-mile apart and most of them were just within the same neighborhood. It was found that kids who lived close to one another have high-quality friendships. This kind of social relation in children is emotionally intimate, longer-lasting, and more frequent compared to those that did not live close to one another.
Advantages of neighborhood-based play
One of the distinct advantages of neighborhood-based play is that it involves mixed-aged peer groups. Having friends with both younger and older playmates may uniquely support the development of children by allowing them to learn the skills of those older than them and they can also serve as mentors and role models for younger kids.
For kids struggling socially, they may more easily prefer younger friends because the adaptive choice fits their social needs better. For children who are more socially adept, they may interact with older kids who share the same interests and capabilities.
The clinical psychologist pointed out a new and yet-to-be-published study, which she and her colleagues have started. In that study, they found that kids who stayed in military installations were less likely to form friendships among their civil peers than within their neighborhoods. The study shows that 37% of military-affiliated friends form friendships in such a setting compared to only 25% of civil kids.
Aikins and colleagues hypothesized that the proximity of neighbors among military families created the inherent sense of camaraderie and shared mission involved in military service. As a result, it becomes a foundation to form friendships. They also observed that common physical characteristics in the neighborhoods, including swimming pools, recreation centers, and cul-de-sacs (a street closed at one end), promoted kids’ interaction. These physical characteristics likewise enabled parents to feel a greater sense of safety and community.
As the school year is finishing this year, many summer camps have temporarily closed but kids who formed positive friendships feel less anxious, depressed, and lonely. They are also less likely to get into trouble in their communities. Aikins encouraged kids to find friendships that are close to their homes so that the relationship can support their feelings of social fulfillment and combat the feelings of isolation amid the pandemic.
Some parents may even feel reminiscent of their childhood. Parents can support their kids' shift to neighborhood-based play by making them understand how they should observe physical distancing while emotionally and socially engaging in play. Parents can form a group of social relationships with the neighborhood so they can also monitor and ensure the safety of their kids while playing outside. For instance, they can suggest a time for outdoor and indoor play, days they would play, and old-school games to try.
The authors believe that these approaches will enable kids to ride out the pandemic and possibly revive neighborhood friendships in the process.
Survey on play
Findings of a Voice of Play survey shows that kids were playing four days a week on average before the pandemic. Eighty percent of parents surveyed said that their kids enjoy playing outdoors significantly more than playing indoors. Children with millennial parents play outdoors the most at an average of 2.23 hours while Baby Boomer parents had kids playing outdoors for 1.94 hours and Generation X 1.85 hours. When temperatures drop, kids still need to play outdoors but 84% of parents of all generations agree that outdoor play is more important in summer than in winter (45%).
Although it is somehow unrealistic to make sure that kids stay six feet apart from their peers while playing, parents should not limit their in-person interactions. They can still have fun outdoors and play low-contact games, such as hopscotch or hide and seek, to safely connect with their peers.