I’ve just finished reading a great article in the NY Times by Donald G. McNeil Jr. The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead. This is by far the best science-based assessment I’ve run across as I sit scouring the internet for facts. While many people are similarly obsessed, their motivations are generally about their exposure and that of their loved ones. Because of my age, I should be equally concerned but, because I’ve accomplished most of my goals, I am at peace with my mortality. What drives my search is what will be the impact on children, especially those of preschool age.
The good news is children seem to be the least susceptible to the illness both in terms of symptoms and death. ALthough there are some troubling new symptoms. While their health is not a huge concern, how we care for and educate them is one of the most challenging problems we have yet to address. Fortunately, there are pilot programs now being run for the children of front-line workers that will give us insights on how we can manage such programs. The initial indications are that this is not an insurmountable problem. Longer-term management is far less clear.
The most immediate issue will be staffing. Since children can be carriers for infection, sooner or later, the staff of preschools are likey to come down with the coronavirus ether through contact with children or when they are out in the community. Most will recover, some will not. This will result in two trends, a shortage of teachers and a demand for higher pay. It will take some time before we realize that all front-line workers have been undervalued and for the society to begin to recognize that teachers ARE front-line works who are grossly underpaid.
In our capitalistic society, the economics of preschool has always been skewed because it was established when childcare was “women’s work” and, therefore, not the responsibility of the father as the breadwinners. Thus, we expect families, rather than society, as we do for older children, to pay for preschools. This economic stress has a regressive impact on families who are, for the most part, at the start of their income-generating opportunities. This is exacerbated these days by the heavy burden many families carry for their college education. It is possible but extremely unlikely that our society will suddenly make both preschools and college free for all. That means that in the gradual reopening of the economy, these perverse economics, together with the adjustments made to a new post-pandemic paradigm, families will increasingly find that preschools are no longer affordable. Many couples, and their employers, will conclude that working from home and watching their children is the sensible thing to do.
While this could be a trend that lasts for only a few years, when one looks at the history of post-pandemic societal changes, they tend to have very long-term impacts. Taken together with the rapid acceleration in technology and the nature of modern work, we can expect home childcare to become the norm. What do these trends mean for children?
When it comes to sit-down education, they will be just fine. There is an unlimited supply of educational materials and online content that is more than adequate to provide a solid basis for academic learning. We can also expect that parents will have to adopt a more play-based form of learning if, for no other reason, than it is far less time-consuming. So, is there a downside for kids?
There sure as heck is a downside when it comes to physical activity and development. How many homes have the sort of environment that provides the full spectrum of physical development? For that matter, how many playgrounds do? That is, if kids are allowed to go there, and parents have the time to supervise them for a couple of hours a day. Play in the neighborhood? Forget about it.
Through my research on the recent in developmental neurological science, I have been able to identify the play patterns that stimulate development in specific areas of the brain. A few of the most important include vestibular, proprioception, executive function, and somatosensory. These are difficult, if not impossible, skills to acquire indoors. If kids could go outside and be in a complex natural environment, the lack of stimulation would not be as acute as children have a knack of finding what they need if left to their devices. Yeah, like that’s going to happen soon and at scale, NOT.
The result of this inevitable scenario is that many more wooden playsets and plastic mini houses with slides will be bought. As anyone who purchased such gear will tell you, these setups were unsatisfying to their kids and regrettable. What is the path forward?
What is needed, and needed right now, is a line of inexpensive apparatus that provides diverse challenges that the children can reconfigure by themselves as their skills improve. Impossible? No! Difficult? Yes. Creating such a system is the mission of Constructive Play Design.
Watch this space.