In a Disability Scoop article about so-called “COVID-babies”, author Adam Clark explores various ways that the pandemic has affected children’s development. Clark begins with a vignette about a two-year old named Charlie who is in speech therapy to help him learn to speak more than one-word utterances. Nancy Polow, one of the speech-pathologists interviewed in the article, is quoted as saying “I have never seen such an influx of infants and toddlers unable to communicate. We call these children COVID babies.” The good news is that lots of the kids like Charlie who are now turning up at speech therapy centers quickly make strides.
After reading this, I found some emerging evidence that being gestated during the early part of the pandemic is associated with some developmental lags. Babies born to two groups of mothers (those who were and those who were not infected with COVID during their pregnancies) were equally likely to show lags in both motor and communication skills compared to a pre-COVID cohort of babies. While in utero exposure to the virus does not seem to be the direct cause any developmental problems, this paper points to some of the impact that pandemic life might be having on the development of millions of babies and toddlers. The authors of this study, Shuffrey et al speculate that COVID-19 related stress during pregnancy could be to blame.
What about other pandemic “side-effects” on kids?
I wondered about the other “side-effects” of pandemic life on kids’ development, so I started asking around. My friend F. explained to me that her three-year old daughter K. is extremely wary of new places and new people. She said “It’s takes her so long to learn social skills…it took her four months to properly settle into preschool. I put a lot of it down to lockdown.” She shared that her child needs time to figure out how unfamiliar environments work before she can engage at all. However, since restrictions have been lifted, the family can go out a bit more, and K.’s confidence in new places is getting much better now, which is fantastic. An acquaintance E. who works in after school childcare said she has noticed a decline kids’ social skills too, saying the kids have literally forgotten how to share, wait, and take turns.
I think one of the best “new places” that so-called COVID babies and toddlers – and even older kids who have been socially isolated – can be taken to is their local library. What if we took all that we know about inclusion of kids with disabilities and expanded that to include kids who are adjusting to pandemic era community life? These are babies and toddlers with no template for our old “normal”. These are young school age kids who have missed out on countless outings and playdates with friends. Flip through a few picture books and I bet you’ll soon see images of children engaging with people in their communities. In real life, the kind of rich community experience that offers kids social learning opportunities was not available for over two years. Now that libraries are fully open, and storytimes and other programs are in person again, it is important to make sure that these COVID era kids and their families get what they need to thrive.
What are you noticing in your programs? When kids come into your storytimes, are they unusually wary, like my friend’s child? Do some kids take a really long time to figure out what is going on? Do they seem overwhelmed by the library space itself? What about the bustle, noise, and activity of a so-called “regular” storytime? Do parents even know that the library is a place that their kids can start building some of the language and social skills they may have missed out on?
Recommendations for Children’s Library Staff
1. Contact the speech-language services folks in your area and encourage them to send their caseload families to the library. Talk to the speech therapists about what they are seeing and ask what you can do to help the families they serve. Remind them that your storytimes are a great place to support early literacy and language growth and that you welcome children of all abilities all the time.
2. Adjust your storytimes for a wider range of development. Pandemic era 3 year-olds with little social experience might act more like 1 or 2 year-olds for a while and that’s fine. It’s okay if your preschool storytime looks like toddler storytime for a while. The longer books you can’t get through now will still be there when the kids are ready for them.
3. Invite conversations with parents about pandemic family life and ask what the library can do to help them. They might have some fantastic ideas that you could easily fulfill to make their lives easier. Just acknowledging what they went through (and are still going through) is a good place to start.
4. Point parents to resources and supports (like speech therapy services) if they have concerns about their children’s development. Encourage them to keep coming back to the library even if their child has a developmental issue that needs to be addressed.
5. Finally, focus on the joy of shared language, literacy, stories, materials, toys, spaces, and activities that you have for families to engage with at the library. The library should be a place where they can connect with other families and just let their kids play together.
I would love to hear about life in the children’s library these days! Please comment below and share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas.
Tess Prendergast was a children’s librarian for over twenty years and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She has served on many ALSC committees and is currently serving on the 2023 Geisel Award committee. You can read more about her work here and here.