12 - 48 Months

How COVID Affects Toddlers’ Social Development

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of that socialization with other children doesn’t typically happen until much older than we think.”

Nekole eaton,
Pediatric Occupational Therapist, KIDS OT HELP

With preschools and daycares in transition and case counts fluctuating, COVID has given parents plenty to worry about. One prominent concern among parents stems from a lack of socialization. None of us are socializing much, but given all the information out there suggesting socialization with other children is important, parents are particularly worried about their children not interacting with peers.

In this episode, we look at how toddlers socialize and how we, as adults, can help them build those skills at home. Jessica Rolph, your host, is joined by Nekole Eaton, a Pediatric Occupational Therapist specializing in child development. You can find her at Kids OT Help on YouTube, where she has built an audience of almost 90,000 subscribers.

Key Takeaways:

[1:22] What kind of socialization most benefits children at a young age?

[3:50] How can parents simulate foundational socialization with their children at home? 

[5:02] What can parents do to impart the lessons that come from disagreements when the playgrounds are closed? 

[6:11] Is it the same to Zoom a grandparent as it is to watch a show or to play a game? 

[8:48] Children can effectively learn basic social skills through caregivers, parents, grandparents, and aunts.

[9:56] Nekole shares how she is socializing her son.

[12:01] On some days, just holding it together during these challenging times is enough.

[14:40] Jessica summarizes the takeaways from her conversation with Nekole. 

Mentioned in this episode:

Kids OT Help on YouTube


What Does a Screen-Free Household Look Like?

Jessica: Hello Nekole.

Nekole: Hey, Jess. Thank you so much for having me.

Jessica: Thank you for being with us. So I wanted to start, why is it important to start socialization with other children at a young age? 

Nekole: Well, it’s interesting. So I will say generally, it’s important for children to be socializing because this is how they take in their entire world outside of the family unit, right? They have opportunities to witness and learn important skills like listening and boundaries and emotional regulation, but also I think it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of that socialization with other children doesn’t typically happen until much older than we think. So a one and a two-year-old isn’t doing the same “socialization” as a three, four and five-year-old.

The Differences in Child Socialization and Social Development

Jessica: So what does that mean? You know, we are speaking to parents of babies and young toddlers. Can you talk a little bit more about what is happening with their play and why socialization isn’t as important at this age? 

Nekole: Right. So a one-year-old, let’s talk about some of the things that are coming online for them socially. So they’re starting to engage with some basic communication skills. So they are indicating what they desire by pointing, maybe they have some words for some items like water, cup, hug, up, but they’re also very, very attached to parents and their immediate family members. And so in terms of interacting with other children, that is just not quite where they’re at developmentally. Again, they’re observing, maybe they’re seeing other children do certain things, but they haven’t quite gained the skills to venture off from mom, dad, and sit with other children yet, right? 

And around two years old, you’ll kind of start to see parallel play come online. And that’s where your child’s able to sit next to another child of a similar age and engage with a toy or an item that they’re interested in, but you’re not yet seeing the back and forth between the two kiddos in terms of language or acknowledging what the other child is doing. So they’re very much attached to the things that they’re engaging with and their immediate family members, familiar faces, grandparents and such.

How Does Interactive Play Affect Social Development?

Jessica: Yeah, that, actually, that makes me feel so much better with this COVID situation, that kids are not actually really engaging in this kind of deep play. That there’s these different stages, and we don’t see that kind of deeper play until later. So can you tell me a little bit more about with music and tumbling classes and kind of like we used to do all this stuff. We go out and about. There is learning that’s happening around turn-taking and engaging with others. How can we as parents simulate that kind of learning at home? 

Nekole: I love that. I think it’s such a great question. And there’s so many different ways that we can facilitate those foundational skills with our kiddos at home, right? So you talked about turn-taking. What are activities, daily activities, you’re doing at home that you can incorporate turn-taking? 

So if you’re making a smoothie with your kiddo, the two of you are at the blender together and you’re narrating the process and saying, “Okay, I’m going to put a piece of banana in and now it’s your turn to put a piece of banana in.” Or turn-taking in music selection. That was something we did a lot with my son, Kai, when he started to enjoy music and dance. It was like mom’s turn to pick a song and then he would pick a song. So incorporating turn-taking and just the things you would do on a day-to-day basis with your kiddo is still a great way to facilitate these skills so they’re prepared when they are older and are out interacting with kiddos their age.

Jessica: So when children are in preschool or daycare, they learn that others may view the world differently from them. Usually through disagreements. What can we do to impart that lesson when the playgrounds are closed? 

Nekole: I think books are huge, because it’s a way with right now, not getting the actual experience. If you do have an older kiddo and they’re in pre-school or daycare, where they would have this immediate experience with other kiddos, and they’re seeing how other kiddos interact with the world, reading stories is a great close second, because they’re getting to see how Jimmy had to share with Tom on the playground and didn’t want to, or take turns, whatever it is. So it helps them understand a concept without having that first-hand experience, which for a lot of parents is second best right now.

Does Video Chat Help Toddlers’ Social Development?

Jessica:I love hearing that we as adults can actually play a part in our children’s learning about turn-taking and then eventually sharing. That it doesn’t have to be with a peer. So I have a question about grandparents and being able to connect with other family members over Zoom or FaceTime. 

Can important socialization be learned that way with other adults in a child’s life? And also, I have this burning question about technology exposure. So is it the same to Zoom a grandparent or FaceTime a grandparent as it is to watch a show or to play a game? 

Nekole: Yeah, absolutely. So, what’s really important, I think about the opportunity to stay connected with family members, like grandparents, aunts, cousins via Zoom, is that we’re still getting those beautiful facial expressions and language opportunities being connected through the screen. And that’s so much different than watching a television show that is rapidly flashing different images at such a fast pace. It’s like a real-time conversation with grandpa or grandma, and you’re getting to see how they react and respond to the things that you’re doing.

Let Your Children Safely Connect With Family and Friends 

If you need a moment to do something, do not be afraid to call up grandma or grandpa on Zoom and have a little social hour or a little social 20-minute get together, because it is a great opportunity for your kiddo to have socialization with different people, and it does not have the negative impact that watching, say, a television show or a movie might have on our younger kiddos, like our one and our two-year-olds.

Jessica: My parents have been so important during this time for us as like extra babysitters. It’s surprising, but Bea will shut the door to her room, and she’s like, “I’m having time with grandma.” And she’ll, next thing you know, I’ll come in later and her room is just destroyed. She’s shown my mom everything, everything in her room. My mom is patiently sitting there, like listening. She’ll sometimes read a book to her, but it’s actually been so sweet. It’s like their relationship is almost richer in a way, because they have this way, and kind of an easier way to daily interact as opposed to all the activities and all the things that kind of keep us busy and away from really connecting.

Nekole: I think everyone cherishes this time so much more too. We realize how much harder it is to get together in person, and so everyone is much more willing to make time for these Zoom calls with the grandkids and everyone else. And I agree with you, it’s so helpful to have family members who are willing to jump on and interact with our kiddos to give us a breather [chuckle] sometimes throughout the day, and it’s good for everyone.

The Power of Connection 

Jessica: I read it’s not contact with other toddlers or babies that’s most important for social learning, it’s simply contact with other people, like parents, like ourselves, or grandparents over FaceTime that really matters. Do you agree with that? 

Nekole: We know that children can effectively learn these social, these basic social skills through our caregivers, parents, grandparents, aunts. So it’s not so much about your little one being around kiddos their age. In fact, research is showing that really there’s no negative impact from not having your children around large groups of kids their age, that effectively they can learn these basic foundational skills through adults. 

And so it’s important for parents to kind of take a deep breath and say like, “We’ve got everything we need right here at home. What we’re doing with our kiddos on a daily basis is enough. It is going to help them continue to stay on track developmentally. And those beautiful Zoom dates with grandma and grandpa, or aunt and uncle are actually facilitating those foundational social skills”

Jessica: I love hearing that, it’s so reassuring. So I’ve gotta ask how are you socializing your little guy, Kai? 

Safe Toddler Socialization During COVID

Nekole: Yeah. We’ve had to get quite creative with it, so we definitely do use Zoom.. He’s four-and-a-half, so he has made friends along the way, and he was in preschool before this happened. So we tried to stay in contact with some of those friends through Zoom dates, but also we have the added benefit because he’s four-and-a-half where he does understand some boundaries and rules. So we’re able to take him to places like the park, but have him ride his bike along the path where he may see other kiddos, but he understands kind of keeping his distance. But he’s such a social creature that he will scream across the park to have a conversation with [chuckle] another child in a socially distanced manner. So we try and just get him out or come to the store with us and have interactions with the cashier. Whatever we can do to make this as normal or typical an experience as possible. It really is about being creative with our kiddos.

Jessica: Yeah, and it is especially hard for those little extroverts. So Bee is a total extrovert. And we just were wandering around the neighborhood one day, just taking a walk, and we met a neighbor that I had never known before, quite a bit aways. And next thing you know, she is just chatting him up and he’s trapped. He is totally dropped. He finally went inside. He was like, “Alright, well,” it was after like 40 minutes of her asking every last question she could think of to ask him. 

But I think that we’re seeing our children, they do seem a little bit starved, some of those extroverted kids seem a little bit starved if they’re older for that socialization, but I think that what I’m hearing from you, the big picture is that our kids are gonna be okay, and we just need to stay connected to them, and they’re learning so much from the loving adults in their life, and we can just continue to be that for them.

Mindful Parenting and Stress Managment During COVID

Jessica: That leads me to my final question. You are an expert in mindfulness and in parenting. And I mean, with everything that is going on right now, what advice do you have for parents to just hold it together? I mean it is just so hard. There’s so much coming at us.

Nekole: It’s so much. And I think it’s, as this continues, there’s just so many different layers, and as you were saying, it’s just such a complex issue. And I’m still trying to figure out how best to navigate this myself, but what I think is important is, especially along the lines of facilitating these social skills in our little ones, having conversations in a developmentally appropriate way with our kiddos. So for instance, of course, we have our little ones and we wouldn’t be sharing with them necessarily all of our emotions around this, but for our parents that have older toddlers or maybe a four or five-year-old, it’s like we do have conversations about how it’s frustrating. I mean Kai came to me the other day and said, “Ugh, I’m so tired of this, I just wanna go back to school.”

And I think giving parents permission to be free in these conversations and not feel like you have to put on a happy face every day and say, “I understand, I’m frustrated too,” and whether that’s with your little one or whether it’s with other parents who you feel comfortable speaking with. I think it’s just so important to have a healthy outlet to communicate what we’re going through, what we’re navigating, and giving ourselves grace. I think that that’s the most important thing. 

We don’t have to wake up every day and knock this out of the park. Some days we’re gonna feel like doing all the things with our children, setting up the activities, and the social opportunities. And other days we may not. Other days, it may be very low-key.

We put on some music, we make smoothies, and we just chill and that’s all right. Giving ourselves some space just to sort of flow through the harder days and the days where we feel motivated to do all the things. I mean, it’s all okay. So just remembering, we’re all human, we all are riding this roller coaster of emotions, and that our kiddos are too, and it’s okay to create a space where they feel like they can have the conversation with you and where you can share some of your emotions again in an appropriate way with your kiddo as well, and that’s a great bonding opportunity too.

Jessica: Yeah. My little guy last night, who’s seven just was so burdened. He was like, “We have so many problems right now,” It was a relief to kind of know that advice, I’ve heard that from you before, and to just be able to be in empathy with him.

Thank you, Nekole, this has been wonderful having you here with us today. I’ve loved every minute of it.

Nekole: Thank you, Jessica, it’s such an honor to be here.

3 Episode Takeaways for Parents

Nekole has this beautiful way of seeding positivity wherever she goes. Here are three of our favorite insights she shared. 

Practice Taking Turns for Interactive Play:

Turn-taking is a skill that comes online earlier than sharing — a more complex collaborative process that children generally pick up around age 4. Practice taking turns with your toddler when engaged in every-day activities like combining ingredients in the kitchen, sorting laundry, or playing games.

Dive Deeper into Storytime:

Use books to expose your child to different perspectives and backgrounds. Talk about why the character might be feeling or acting in a particular way. Stories are a great substitute for the kind of diversity of opinions your toddler might encounter at preschool or daycare.

Virtual Calls Are a Great Way to Practice Social Development:

Because your toddler is receiving a response from the person on the other end of the Zoom call, these virtual interactions are much like face-to-face ones. This exchange, something scientists like to call “serve and return,” is crucial for language development. This is one type of screen time you can feel good about!

You can find more information on the skills your child is developing at every stage on the Lovevery blog. Find Nekole at Kids OT Help on YouTube.


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, Child Development, Playtime & Activities, Parenting

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