Always Turn Toward the Sun

How has the pandemic affected what kids know? SCU’s Kirsten Read is researching what happened when less people read to our kids.

There are things young children learn about language, storytelling, and reading when they have story time with a variety of people, says Kirsten Read, an assistant professor and developmental psychologist researching early language development.

A child’s community can teach them to understand words and concepts in different ways. Maybe Grandpa voices the big, bad wolf comedically, making the imagined danger manageable. Perhaps Aunt Thuy uses her hands to show how big “big” can be. In spring 2020, the arrival of COVID forced many families into a massive experiment: What would happen if that community of storytellers suddenly shrunk?

In 188 countries, schools closed as officials scrambled to enact safety measures against the new virus. By June 2020, 1.7 billion students worldwide were out of school because of pandemic-related closures. Parents struggled on their own, without the help of teachers, after-school programs, day care centers, and babysitters, often juggling work and child care demands simultaneously.

While scientists know more about COVID nearly three years in, so many questions remain about the long-term effects of the virus and pandemic lockdowns on our physical and mental health.

Flower

Researchers like Read are particularly curious about how those restrictions affected children.

Through surveys of families, Read found that kids indeed had fewer people reading to them during school closures. But, miraculously, she found that kids did not lose out on reading time. In fact, their direct caregivers read to children more—making up for the time when other people would have been telling them stories.

“It was surprising how much parents and caregivers made up for that loss. They were really attuned to what kids were missing,” says Read. “Think back to that time when everyone is at home, and people are trying to work, or they are not working. There was so much stress. It gives me such hope that people found a way to make this a priority.”

But while Read says most kids will catch up on academic skills such as reading, addition, and subtraction, it’s the other stuff—the things that kids learn from each other like how to share and how to lose—that concerns her.

“You can’t just go to after-school tutoring for social skills,” she says. “You have to be with other kids.”

The evidence is anecdotal, but kids seem to be filling those gaps, Read says. Stories abound of junior high students playing duck-duck-goose or other elementary games to fill in the social education they didn’t get a chance to finish.

“Kids learn really fast,” Read says. “And they seem to have this hunger to make up for the things they’ve been missing out on. There’s a very high demand for sports and arts pro- grams. It’s like they know and they are leaning in to get the things they need. They are growing toward the sun.”

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