Although research suggests the coronavirus may not affect children as severely as adults, the COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting the lives of American kids. In addition to school closures, strict hand-washing rules, disruption of routine and a general sense of fear and uncertainty, it seems the news of the coronavirus has made its way into playtime.
Over the past few weeks, teachers and parents on Twitter have shared stories of “coronavirus tag” and other games kids are playing along that theme. We asked members of the HuffPost Parents Facebook community if they’d observed their children incorporating COVID-19 into playtime and received a number of responses.
“When I tucked my 8-year-old daughter into bed the other night, she put one of her stuffed animals in a shoebox. When I asked her why, she said it was under quarantine due to the coronavirus,” mom Christy Fitzwater commented.
“Our kids were playing doctor last week and everyone was diagnosed with coronavirus,” Alli Chase wrote. Jess Alya Chaudhry, a mother under quarantine with her family in China, noted that her 4-year-old has also played doctor and treated stuffed animals for the virus.
Christie Pham shared a photo of her daughter’s COVID-19 game. “My daughter and I were playing school with her Shopkins yesterday,” she wrote. “There was a big line at the sink to wash hands because of ‘Cantaloupe virus.’”
Several parents said their children were playing “coronavirus tag” ― with one version requiring the tagged kids to tag someone else in 20 seconds or they would be “dead.”
COVID-19 is also offering some musical inspiration. Katie Newman commented, “My kids are singing to the tune of the Moana song ‘Corona! Make way! Make way! Corona, it’s time you knew!’”
Why Coronavirus Play Is Normal And Healthy
It’s only natural that kids would pick up on the fact of the coronavirus pandemic from observing the adults in their lives, seeing news clips and even talking to each other. Child psychologists have recommended that parents talk to their children about the illness in age-appropriate ways to clear up any misconceptions or fears and offer a source of reliable information and support.
As for those coronavirus games, experts believe that’s a natural response as well.
“During this heightened panic around the coronavirus, it is completely normal and expected that kids, especially young children, will incorporate themes of the virus into their play,” said Natasha Daniels, a child therapist and creator of AnxiousToddlers.com. “As adults, we often ‘talk things out’ to process our emotions and explore our feelings. Children often ‘play things out’ to work through their feelings.”
Playtime is a common outlet for kids working through fears and processing difficult emotions and situations. This is why play therapy is a popular tool for helping children deal with trauma.
“As disturbing as it may sound, I have seen kids act out and incorporate themes around school shootings in their play,” said Daniels, noting that it’s a healthy and productive way to deal with a tough topic, especially for kids who don’t have the language skills to adequately verbalize what they’re feeling.
Many people point to “Ring Around the Rosie” as proof that children have incorporated pandemics into their play in the past (though the widespread claim that the folk song is about the Black Plague appears to be false). Plus, the lyrics to many old children’s songs and lullabies are quite dark. Classic fairytales also tend to involve a fair amount of death and danger. This can actually be a good thing.
“What you observe can provide you with a blueprint of where to focus when explaining what is going on with the coronavirus.”
By playing a game with dark themes and consuming age-appropriate stories with wicked villains, kids learn coping skills to deal with their fears and master their emotions in a safe environment. Sometimes kids will even take on the role of the “bad guys” to feel empowered and gain a sense of control over the things that scare them.
What Parents Should Pay Attention To
Although it may be upsetting these days for parents to observe their kids playing games with themes like illness and death, it can also offer insight into their children’s perceptions of the coronavirus and shed light on how they’re coping.
Daniels advises parents to not take a child’s play literally or read too much into it. Rather, they should pay attention and ask themselves a few questions: What are the common themes the kids are working through? What fears are showing up in these themes? Is their play doom and gloom or is there a happy ending?
“What you observe can provide you with a blueprint of where to focus when explaining what is going on with the coronavirus,” said Daniels.
If a frequent theme is them getting sick, focus your conversations on the data suggesting that children are less likely to catch the virus and more likely to recover quickly. If it’s the idea of you getting sick, then focus your talks on the steps you’re taking to stay healthy and the limited likelihood that the virus would cause you to become deathly ill.
“If their play is all doom and gloom and repetitive for a period of time, you can gently incorporate yourself into their play,” said Daniels. “I wouldn’t suggest this immediately, but it would be a good idea if you are seeing ‘stuck’ play for a period of time. When you join their play, you gently shift the play to a productive and happy ending.”
Parents should try not to directly discuss their children’s play with them, as it could make the kids feel self-conscious to know they’re being watched. They may shut down and stop playing out their feelings altogether, which would remove a healthy outlet from their lives.
When It Becomes Worrisome
There are situations where coronavirus-related play may enter harmful territory like bullying.
Multiple readers responded to the HuffPost Parents callout by noting that their kids have witnessed or been victims of bullying based around COVID-19.
“My son (10) has talked about kids in school using ‘so-and-so has the coronavirus’ as a way of excluding and shaming others,” wrote Catherine Charan. “He said he’s trying to stop it by telling these kids it’s a real thing, not a joke, in hopes it will stop them from having an audience laughing with them. (Super proud of that) The flip side is he has a cold and cried yesterday when I said he needed to stay home from school tomorrow. He said when he goes back to school the kids will make fun of him saying he has it now.”
Clinical psychologist John Mayer was not surprised by that kind of response from children.
“Using it as a bullying technique is not surprising because we use anything that is perceived as ‘different’ or sets us apart from the norms of our social group as a tool for bullying,” he said.
Emily Edlynn, a child psychologist who runs the Art and Science of Mom blog, told HuffPost these are situations when adults should step in.
“Although the play itself is normal, adults need to intervene if children are using play to exclude or target other children,” she said, noting that prejudice against Asian Americans due to the origin of the outbreak has reached children. “To prevent children from using stereotypes to unfairly target peers, we need to talk to our children about how there is no one group to blame for the illness.”
Adults should also intervene if coronavirus play is getting in the way of important safety measures for preventing infection like hand-washing.
“Using it in playful ways as with tag, which is about what they are learning (re: people can get it from touching), can be helpful to make it less scary,” said Robin Goodman, a clinical psychologist and art therapist who works with children on stress-related issues. “But you need to be careful about minimizing the serious message about needing to be careful.”
Ultimately, parents play a big role in shaping their children’s response to COVID-19.
“This global pandemic provides us with an opportunity to teach our children to learn and practice kindness and recognize that we have more in common than that which separates us. In uncertain times, these situations can bring up much fear but they can also bring out the best in us as humans, including our natural altruistic qualities,” said Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child.”
“So focus on the good,” she said. “Acknowledge that bad things do happen but help your child to think about the brave helpers such as the doctors and nurses, the acts of kindness and the way people come together in challenging times.”