Toys in quarantine, paper test kits: COVID-19 has changed the way children play

Alia Wong, USA TODAY
·5 min read

The world of Woof Woof Doggy Bone was born on March 13, 2020. Schools were shutting down, forcing children to idle their time away within the confines of their homes. Naturally, Justice and Harrison Krauss, ages 10 and 7, decided to escape the hard reality by creating one of their own – one free of COVID-19 and social distancing and masks. One where they could create the characters, plot lines and rules of conduct.

Woof Woof Doggy Bone – or Woof Woof for short – is composed of LEGOs. Many of them are miniature dogs. And it’s since sprawled throughout the Krausses’ southern Illinois home. There’s “The Underworld” (“because basement sounds weird,” Justice said) and “The Bedland” upstairs (aka “Comfy World,” according to Harrison). Then there’s “Spiderman Planet,” the middle floor and also the capital of Woof Woof.

The square-footage is necessary considering Woof Woof’s population consists of “about a million, a gazillion,” characters, Justice said, some of whom are invisible.

The past year has changed child play in dramatic ways – stuffed animals in quarantine, pretend COVID-19 vaccines and alternate realities like Woof Woof Doggy Bone that are immune from deadly viruses. Experts say this shift is a normal and healthy way for kids to escape or understand reality.

Is my child's play concerning?

Laura Lessard, a professor at the University of Delaware with a background in epidemiology, said her 4-year-old daughter started creating her own COVID-19 test kits in December. The kits, construction-paper envelopes whose edges are fastened by duct tape, are decorated with marker drawings of a specimen tube, a nasal swab, and a cotton pad. Sometimes the preschooler sets up a drive-thru testing site in her backyard, her younger sister often taking part, too.

For Lessard, the simulations are funny. But they're also sad – her two children attend a local day care and are tested regularly. The real-life kits have become a routine part of their lives.

Generally speaking, experts say, pandemic-related play shouldn't be cause for concern. “Sometimes the themes that frighten parents are … actually a sign that kids are doing a great job at processing what they need to process,” said Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in early childhood social-emotional development and mental health.

As an example, Hershberg pointed to her young son, who set up a giant stuffed-animal hospital in his room, all of the patients having been infected with COVID-19. “It’s easy as a mom to say, ‘Oh gosh, should we really play about this? Is this respectful? Is this concerning?’” she said. “And the fact of the matter is that it's actually a sign that they are hearing what they need to hear and potentially exerting some control over it.” By playing doctor, her son can help the stuffed animals recover.

Research shows that unstructured play is critical to children's physical, emotional, and social well-being. That's in part because they use it as a means of dealing with complicated or difficult situations. Parents should view play as a skilled – and healthy – form of expressing oneself.

“A child who suddenly seems really worried or sad or is having difficulty eating or sleeping is maybe struggling with these exact same themes but hasn't found a way to express that," Hershberg said.

Similarly, Emily Edlynn, a clinical child psychologist who founded the blog The Art and Science of Mom, urges parents not to overanalyze their children’s pandemic-era play. “Play can simply be a reflection of their reality,” she said. “They’re mimicking what they’re seeing around them – it doesn’t have to mean that it’s something stressful or difficult.”

Pandemic parenting: Experts say this is what children need to survive the COVID-19 pandemic

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Toys that comfort are on the rise

The pandemic has fueled demand for what the Toy Association – a trade organization – has dubbed “Zen-Sational” toys. The growing popularity of these toys, which aim to promote mindfulness and self-care, are a testament to parents’ recognition that play is a particularly effective strategy for promoting kids’ emotional well-being, said the association’s Kristin Morency Goldman.

Interviews with parents and their children also suggest a renewed interest in traditional toys such as LEGOs.

Beth Hirsh said her kids developed restaurants and stores out of Legos – structures where pandemic rules apply. In these venues, only household members are allowed to dine together. And “there's always a line up outside,” Hirsh said.

Either way, children’s play habits, experts suggest, underscore the value of imagination as a coping strategy. (In fact, their anecdotal observations indicate an uptick in imaginary friends – particularly among only children.)

Reina Ushiroda, 13, last spring developed a renewed interest in American Girl dolls. She got her first American Girl doll after finishing kindergarten but had grown out of it over the years. When COVID-19 hit, however, she started to pass the time by building furniture out of cardboard. Eventually, she had so much miniature furniture that she needed someone – or something – to use it. Enter: her years-old American Girl doll – and, before too long, two new ones.

"It got boring making crafts just for me," said Ushiroda, who also creates stop-motion videos with her dolls.

Jessica Calarco, a professor and mother in Indiana, said her daughter has filled her sketchbooks with drawings of robots and other creatures – characters she talks to when her parents are busy working from home and plays with as a substitute for her human friends. She even started making videos of her drawings, sharing them with her cousins in the hopes of inspiring them to do something similar.

"She is using art as a way to ... capture what life could be like" in a COVID-19-free world, Calarco said. "She's designing robots that are invincible."

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 playtime: Toys in quarantine, pretend vaccines are normal