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How to Keep Kids Busy, Happy—and Safe

How to Keep Kids Busy, Happy—and Safe

Try these suggestions to keep children physically engaged—while remaining socially and emotionally fit—during this pandemic summer.

Updated on July 1, 2020 at 4:00pm EDT.

For parents who’ve been juggling work, online schooling, grocery shopping, cooking and a laundry list of other responsibilities for the past few months, summer may seem like a welcome change of pace. But the urge to get outside and enjoy the longer, warmer days may be complicated by worries about what families can—and can’t—do safely.

As cities and states continue re-opening this summer, there are many areas across the country where new COVID-19 cases are on the rise. It’s understandable if you’re feeling torn between wanting to allow your kids to socialize after being cooped up and seeking to avoid exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

“Children need a community and parents are feeling pretty frustrated,” says Jamie M. Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “For many parents, their tolerance of risk is increasing in order to manage their mental health a little bit better and to give their kids some opportunities they haven’t had in a while.”

If you’re planning outings for your children or taking steps to expand your social “bubble,” remember that “the more closely you interact with others, and the longer those interactions are, the higher the risk,” says Emily Ussery, PhD, a member of the COVID-19 Response Community Intervention and Critical Populations Task Force at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This is particularly important if there’s anyone in your household at increased risk for complications from COVID-19, such as those who are older or those with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, obesity or a compromised immune system.

You’ll also want to factor in how widespread the disease is in the area where you live. The higher the number of new cases in your community, the higher your risk of getting sick if you visit places where other people outside of your family are congregating.

If you’ve decided that the benefits of an outing outweigh the possible risks involved, there are steps you can take to help keep your family safe while you’re engaging in some typical summer activities.

Going to a playground, park or trail
Thankfully, playing outside is relatively low risk compared to being indoors. The virus is primarily spread when people are in close contact for extended periods. Outdoor airflow can help dissipate viral particles that may linger in the air. Your best bet are parks with lots of space and few people. Just be ready to end an outing early if you see large crowds or trails that are too narrow to enable social distancing.

Going to playgrounds is much higher risk—if they are even open. Yes, they’re outdoors, but they are full of surfaces that kids love to grab and touch. The CDC urges park managers to regularly disinfect often-touched surfaces and restrooms, but many towns don’t have the resources to invest in such frequent cleanings.

“As an extra precaution, parents can use disinfectants on surfaces and objects frequently touched by multiple people, like handrails and benches,” Ussery recommends.

Don’t forget masks for both you and your children. Many places require anyone older than age 2 to wear a face covering. Ussery offers one more reminder for moms and dads: Apply sanitizer to your child’s hands before and after playing and before eating any snacks.

“Just be sure the disinfectant has thoroughly dried before allowing children to play,” she adds. And make sure everyone’s hands get a good scrub with soap and water when you get home.

Going to a public pool
Nothing may be as refreshing during summer as a swim. Cooling off in a pool on a hot day is possible—with some safety precautions. As with parks and playgrounds, the CDC advises that facility managers clean and disinfect commonly used surfaces as much as possible, but it’s important to check with your city or state for guidelines on public pool openings and specific safety measures in your local area.

As an added safety measure when going swimming this summer, bring your own wipes to swab down shared items like lounge chairs, tables and umbrellas, as well as handles and other surfaces in restrooms and showers. Avoid sharing equipment like goggles or snorkels. Also, remember to stay 6 feet away from people outside your family—whether in the water or on the pool deck—and wear a cloth face mask when you are not in the water.

Attending summer camp
If your children’s summer camp is open, you may be wrestling with the tough decision of whether to send them. The usual COVID-19 prevention strategies apply to day camp, but how the camp is set up makes a difference. The CDC says the lowest-risk camp scenario is small groups of campers from the same geographical area staying together every day and spending the vast majority of their time outside, spaced apart as much as possible. By comparison, a riskier camp option would have campers mingling with larger numbers of kids on a daily basis and spending more time indoors. Check to see how camps in your area are addressing concerns about COVID-19 and implementing key prevention strategies, such as social distancing and hand washing.

Sleepaway camp poses steeper challenges when it comes to social distancing, particularly when kids arrive from different cities or states and when campers live in close quarters. If your chosen camp is open and you plan to register your child, ask the managers if they are following the CDC’s recommendations for overnight camps, which includes having a designated isolation room in the event that a child develops COVID-19 symptoms and a procedure for quickly getting the camper to a healthcare facility.

Getting a babysitter
Your place of work may be reopening or you might desperately need a break from the 24/7 parenting-in-a-pandemic routine. If you do need a sitter, Ussery advises using the same person every time, asking them to wear a cloth face mask when they come over and insisting on frequent handwashing (this means kids and the sitter), particularly before and after preparing food and changing diapers.

“Encourage outdoor activities whenever possible,” she adds.

If possible, ask a family member or someone you are close with for help with childcare, since it may be easier to control possible risks. Naturally, you’ll also want to remind your sitter to stay home if they have any COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to anyone who tested positive in the previous 14 days. Make sure that anyone you hire to be a caregiver in your home understands how COVID-19 is spread and how transmission can be prevented.

Seeing friends
Perhaps you know another family whose members have also been carefully quarantining, wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart when they’re around other people, and you’re wondering if you can hang out together.

Out of an abundance of caution, the CDC continues to advise against having in-person playdates with children from other households. But it’s up to each family to think about the benefits and risks of interactions with friends.

“The lowest risk is no playdates or virtual-only, of course,” Ussery says. “Higher risk are infrequent playdates with the same child, in which both children are practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings. Highest risk are frequent playdates with multiple children who are not socially distancing and not wearing cloth face coverings.”

If you still want to schedule a playdate, Ussery notes that getting together with the same group of friends routinely may expose you to fewer sources of infection than if you were to meet up with a new group of friends each time.

Another option is to have outdoor-only time with friends, where children can play or talk near each other but not have close, prolonged contact indoors. If you choose this option, it’s a good idea to keep the playdates brief to avoid the need for bathroom breaks.

“It could be that you have a friend over and they sit 6 feet apart and have lunch on the porch—little things like that,” Howard suggests.

Don’t forget the basics
No matter what activities you decide to do or who you plan to see, you’ll want to stick with the preventive measures health officials have been recommending since the pandemic began.

“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol,” Ussery says. “Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick and stay at least 6 feet from others. Cover coughs and sneezes. And cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face mask when you’re around other people.”

Social distancing can be challenging for kids, so it’s a good idea to rehearse it with them as much as possible before heading out.

Above all, it's important to acknowledge that so many aspects of the pandemic are simply hard, and whatever steps you take will require effort, consideration and compassion, for others and for yourself.

“When you’re in the middle of a crisis, resilience doesn’t mean you’re thriving and loving every minute of it,” Howard says. “It means you put one foot in front of the other and move forward.”

Medically reviewed in June 2020.

Sources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): People Who Are at Increased Risk for Severe Illness.”
National Park Service. “So many parks! Things to keep in mind when visiting different types of parks during COVID-19.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Guidance for Administrators in Parks and Recreational Facilities.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Considerations for Public Beaches.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Suggestions for Youth and Summer Camps.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Help Stop the Spread of COVID-19 in Children.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Personal and Social Activities: Hosting gatherings or cook-outs.”
Melinda Wenner Moyer. “What Should You Do About Your Babysitter During Coronavirus?” New York Times. March 19, 2020.

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