During a recent game of doctor, John Miles’s daughter was examining her younger sister. The 4-year-old measured her sister’s temperature with a fake thermometer, listened to her heart and breath with a toy stethoscope, and tested her reflexes with gentle taps from a small plastic hammer. After the examination, she diagnosed her patient with the coronavirus and declared in a matter-of-fact tone that her sister would probably die.
In the middle of a disaster—such as the current pandemic—many parents witness episodes like these. “It’s upended [kids’] lives. It’s natural that it would be on their minds,” Sandra Russ, a professor who studies play at Case Western Reserve University, told me. As children absorb scary and confusing news, many turn to play seeking understanding and respite. After Hurricane Katrina, Joy Osofsky, a psychologist at Louisiana State University, served on a cruise ship repurposed for emergency responders. She recalls watching children on the boat “play hurricane.” They would run around, mimicking the violent winds, and scatter toys around the ship, re-creating the wreckage left by the storm.
Play is children’s language. They act out pretend scenarios as a way to express concerns, ask questions, and, crucially, reshape a narrative. In a pretend scenario, children are driving the plot and can change the outcome of a scary situation or try out different solutions to a problem.
For example, after learning that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, involved trouble breathing, children at a preschool in Kirkland, Washington (where the virus spread rapidly through a nursing home), began to “play CPR,” Kelly Ritting, a parent from the area, told me. Although schools in Seattle have since closed, Ritting’s 4-year-old daughter has continued to independently play doctor. Recently, she “swabbed” her baby brother with a Lego giraffe. After rubbing the giraffe on a plate, she said that, while the test was positive, her brother would be okay, because her parents had told her that children don’t get that sick from the virus. (Children can get infected, though their risk of death is not fully known. Children’s exposure is also a concern given that they can pass the disease to others.)
Bradley Madison, a lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, shared that his four sons have recently enjoyed playing “CoronaBall,” a game that involves dodging a spiky plastic ball that loosely resembles illustrations of the virus. Before the schools in Kansas City, Missouri, closed, Nathan Hopper’s 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son played multiple virus-related games invented by their peers. “Social-distancing tag” ingeniously responded to demands that people keep their distance by allowing whoever was “it” to tag another child’s shadow. In the more dangerous “coronavirus tag,” students would tag someone by coughing on them—though children could also achieve “immunity” by wearing a “hazmat suit” (a hood) or a “face mask” (raising a sleeve to one’s face).
In general, parents do not need to be concerned by children incorporating the coronavirus into their play (though parents should probably discourage them from coughing on one another). Children use play to express their worries, so an occasional mention of even death is natural, Russ said. “I would worry more if the play takes a dark turn and children seem anxious when they’re playing,” Ann Masten, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, cautioned. But unless children seem distressed, or are compulsively repeating the same scenario without changing the outcome, play can be a healthy way for kids to process the news and can give parents insight into their child’s emotional state. “When you watch them play, you can pick up clues about what they are thinking and what they believe about the virus and the pandemic,” Abigail Gewirtz, a family-social-science professor at the University of Minnesota, told me.
While none of the parents I spoke with believed that their children were particularly anxious or fearful, they all struggled with the changes to their kids’ routines. They were all fielding questions about topics such as death and the long-term complications of the virus. Ritting’s daughter asked a lot about death and why she couldn’t see her friends. “She keeps telling me that her friends have ‘let go of her heart,’ because she has not seen them in so long,” Ritting said. Hopper, a paramedic and an assistant division chief in emergency medical services, has had some tough conversations with his kids, but he worries most about the shock that children will feel months from now: “Some of their friends are going to lose homes. Some parents are going to lose jobs.” Osofsky, who worked with children after Hurricane Katrina, also worries about the mental-health aftereffects of the pandemic, driven by the current moment’s anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty.
When talking about the pandemic with kids, Gewirtz, who is the author of the forthcoming book When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids, recommended that parents first manage their own emotions to ensure that they are not projecting anxiety onto their child, and then identify and validate their kid’s feelings. While she discouraged making promises about uncertain outcomes, parents can fact-check misconceptions about the disease, shield children from the most brutal information, and brainstorm with their kids about ways to feel safe.
More than anything, the experts I spoke with emphasized that parents should not discourage play. Engaging in imaginative play can help with creativity and coping skills, Russ, the professor at Case Western, said. It can be a way to process emotions—or simply an outlet for a fun distraction. While play can harbor children’s deepest worries, it can also be a place for them to practice their creative problem-solving. When Miles, a curator of rare books at LSU, heard his daughter’s proclamation that her younger sister would probably die, he didn’t know how to react. His daughter didn’t seem distressed, but her message was so morbid. She didn’t express any worries directly, but Miles later explained to her that, while she and her sister weren’t in danger, they were trying to protect older people, such as her grandparents, whom they hadn’t visited in a while. The next time she played doctor, she pronounced her sister healthy.
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