Katie Clark sits in a lawn chair in the backyard of the Highland Park home of her friend Nia Baton-Soffietti. The women drink coffee while their two-year-old sons, Oscar and Desmond, explore the hatch of the Baton-Soffietti family car.
“He has no sense of personal space,” said Clark, of her son Oscar.
This is the kids’ third play date since the start of the pandemic shut down. Like many children, the boys haven’t spent much time with kids their own age, due to their parents’ concerns about exposure to COVID-19.
Pediatricians say those concerns are reasonable.
“Recognize that everything you do outside of your home comes with increased risk,” said Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics in Pittsburgh.
Physicians interviewed for this story all said whether to resume play dates is a personal choice. But Woylnn did give some recommendations: Get-togethers should be limited to kids from just a couple families who are taking COVID-19 precautions seriously; stick to outdoor activities, where kids are able to stay six feet apart.
“Indoors, younger kids maybe, no mask-wearing. Risks go up,” he said.
Clark and Baton-Soffietti are keeping to outside play dates for now, and are not making the boys wear masks. Baton-Soffietti knows her son, Desmond, misses kids his age because when they walk by his daycare, he cries and asks for his friends.
“For him to just kind of be mumbling about all his friends and wanting to ‘go see, go see,’ and not be able to, was really heartbreaking,” she said.
Baton-Soffietti waited a couple a months after Desmond’s daycare closed to schedule his first play date with Oscar. Clark says after being apart for so long, the boys seemed nervous at first.
“They were like, separate for a little while,” she said. "When we had play dates before the pandemic, they would like start chasing each other right away.”
Dr. Joseph Aracri, chair of pediatrics at Allegheny Health Network, says he’s noticed that kids have been acting out more when they come to his office for medical care. He attributes this to how scary life has become in the last few months.
“It’s time to start normalizing things. You can do that in a very safe, cautious manner,” he said. “But the kids need to interact. [Isolation] is not natural.”
Aracri agrees that activities outdoors are safest, and advises that parents have kids wash their hands and faces before playing. But he doesn’t think kids should wear masks.
“I just think it’s horrible for them,” he said.
If a child, caregiver or sibling is immunocompromised, the health risk posed by a play date might be too high. But Aracri’s concern is that prohibiting peer-to-peer interaction stunts a child’s psycho-social development.
“Especially kids that are going from like, two to four years of age, they are going from the separation of the parents, to developing play structures, learning how to negotiate with each other,” he said. “We have to make sure that that developmentally occurs.”
The pandemic, and all of its unknowns, present a learning opportunity, as parents can model for kids how to evaluate and tolerate risk, said Dr. Abigail Schlesinger.
“We’re making choices. This is what we’re doing to keep ourselves safe. If things change, we may change what we’re doing,” said Schlesinger, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at UPMC Children’s Hospital.
While COVID-19 cases and deaths are declining in Pennsylvania, the pandemic is not over. The role children have in spreading the coronavirus is not known. Epidemiologists warn the chances of a second surge increase as people expand their social circles.
While Schlesinger is worried about how the pandemic is affecting the emotional wellbeing of kids and families, she says holding off on play dates is a legitimate choice.
“In 1918 in the pandemic, they didn’t have all these things that we have, right? And we didn’t see an entire generation of people with no psycho-social skills,” she said.
A kid’s most important relationships are with their parents, after all. So, if you’re playing with your child and making sure they feel safe and loved, Schlesinger says they will be OK.