Adverse Childhood Experiences, COVID-19, and Play

One year ago this month, California Senator Mike McGuire and State Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., brought the message about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to Mendocino County. Dr. Harris had recently been appointed as California’s first Surgeon General, following her ground-breaking work on ACEs’ impact on children and their health outlooks. Her message made it clear that adverse childhood experiences affect 34.8 million children across socio-economic lines, putting them at higher risk for health, behavioral, and learning problems.

I became aware of Dr. Harris’s work after hearing her NPR interview and reading her book The Deepest Well. She wrote the book based on her experiences at the Center for Youth Wellness that she established in the poorest sector of San Francisco. The impact of learning statistics and the success of her program had on my thinking was profound. To list just one example, the studies on which this program is based identified 10 ACEs. They also found that as little as three ACEs can lead to profound biologic changes, reducing life expectancy by 20 years.

So, what do ACEs have to do with COVID-19?  The pandemic has introduced many changes that exacerbate the impact of ACEs. One of the most profound and least recognized effects has been on normal play interactions by kids. For example, we have written several blogs on the critical role of rough and tumble play on children’s development of executive function, on which social competency is based. It was hard enough to allow for R&T play before the pandemic. Now? Fuhgeddaboudit.

It has become increasingly clear that our society will not be able to transition into a healthy and robust new normal until the issue of COVID safe childcare is addressed. The fact that children are asymptomatic vectors for the disease presents a huge challenge. Just the current practice of isolation of children from their grandparents alone is a daunting problem. The economic impact on daycare providers to reduce capacity and increased teacher ratios make the current situation unsustainable.

Tom Hobson has written extensively in his blog and books about early childhood’s essential physical intimacy on healthy development. The Play First Summit that Tom helped organize occurred over four days in July and reached more than 75,000 early childhood practitioners and experts. The outpouring of interest in COVID during the summit is evidence that there is real energy on this issue. It is past time that Tom and other child development thought leaders are brought into the discussion on solutions for the impact on COVID-19.

What is needed now is to combine the event that Mike and Dr. Harris held with the support of First Five California and the Play First Summit attendees. Such a gathering will bring both the expertise and scale to begin to develop and execute new protocols and programming with the potential to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Such a COVID Safe Play Summit will also help spread the awareness of ACEs in general to the places where parents, children, and teachers can effect change.

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