What our locked-down kids are going to miss out on

It’s not just their education that is going to take a hit.

Joanna Williams
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British children have been indefinitely grounded. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere, but the reality of keeping kids indoors for weeks on end is just too grim for a punchline.

It’s not only schools that have closed in response to Covid-19. Libraries have shut their doors; many parks and almost all playgrounds are locked; shops, cafés and fast-food chains are not re-opening any time soon. The national lockdown means we are all now expected to stay at home. For children, this means weeks spent in the company of just their siblings and parents.

The government’s instructions for dealing with children during the coronavirus pandemic make little sense. The children of essential workers continue to attend school – albeit for childcare rather than education. This is necessary to keep hospitals and the food supply chain operational. But what it means in practice is that 20 children can mix in a classroom, but three children can’t go and sit together on a bench in a park. On Friday afternoon, children up and down the country crowded into school halls for hastily written final assemblies; just hours later the police were dispersing teenagers who had gathered for an end-of-term party.

We know, from all the data so far gathered on Covid-19, that children are least likely to display symptoms of coronavirus, rarely fall seriously ill and are extremely unlikely to die. We do not know what role children play in spreading the virus. Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology, writes in the Guardian that, ‘While many of us suspect that children have a key role to play in this outbreak, hard evidence to support this belief is still lacking’. Our precautionary approach means that rather than celebrating children’s apparent immunity, the absence of knowledge transforms children into metaphors for the virus itself. Ball says that if children are infected, then they ‘could be invisible carriers’ of coronavirus (my emphasis). Yet despite the uncertainty, he concludes that children are a threat – and, being invisible carriers – they pose a more pernicious threat to older generations than anyone else.

So, without any substantive evidence that this is the best approach to take, children are to be kept at home, with their parents, for the foreseeable future. We urgently need to ask what the social, physical, psychological and educational impact of this is likely to be.

In terms of education, children are clearly still learning. My daughter is surely not the only teenager now fluent in Covid-19. Where friends were once identified as gender non-conforming or lactose intolerant, she now knows who is immuno-compromised or immuno-suppressed. Phrases like social distancing, self-isolation and lockdown pepper her vocabulary.

Many teachers are setting children work via emails home. But not knowing whether this will ever be marked or even looked at lends an air of futility to each exercise completed. School tasks become, for the large part, simply a distraction, something to fill up the endless hours. Of course, some parents with the time, energy and resources – not to mention peculiarly biddable children – are enthusiastically embracing home schooling. Good luck to them. But this does mean that coronavirus will most likely exacerbate further the class inequalities already apparent throughout our education system.

But it’s not just in terms of education where the costs of keeping children at home will be felt. Young children especially need to expend energy. They need to be able to run around, jump and climb. Their muscles need to be worked, their lungs need to be filled. They need to test their growing bodies against the world and each other. A daily YouTube workout on the living-room carpet is a poor substitute for fresh air and sunlight.

Perhaps most concerning of all is the social impact of keeping children isolated. It is through daily interactions with people outside of their immediate family that children learn how to behave in public and how to make sense of themselves and other people. When children leave their family behind, even just for a few hours in school, they gain independence. This is especially important for teenagers, who are now expected to hit pause on hanging around in town after school, jostling for position on the bus, sharing an illicit bottle of cider, shopping, flirting, teasing, talking, and just being with each other. Individually, each of these interactions may seem trivial, but collectively they enable children to forge relationships and to be a person in the world instead of just existing individually.

Rather than encouraging real interaction, we are now pushing our children into using the technology that just a fortnight ago we were wrestling off them. The past week has seen the invention of the online playdate and the virtual sleepover: children remain cocooned, but can smile at each other through screens. This is undoubtedly better than nothing, but it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face engagement.

Of course, Covid-19 needs to be taken incredibly seriously. Children need to know about it and they should have an appropriate awareness of the risks it poses. For older children this might mean conveying some sense of uncertainty: not all scientists agree on the best approach to tackling the virus. In addition, we need to enable children to put risk into some perspective. We could catch coronavirus on a trip to the supermarket, but we all need to eat – so as long as we are healthy it is less risky to get the shopping in.

Covid-19 is a global medical emergency. But there are educational, social and psychological costs to isolating children that are not necessarily borne out by what we know of the risks children pose in transmitting the virus. At present, there’s a danger that all children are hearing is that at a time of national crisis our only option is one of passivity and defeat. Not only do they have nothing to do and no useful role to play – worse, they are getting the message that they are poisonous to their relatives and those around them and must stay hidden away for everyone’s benefit.

There are alternatives. Older children could be encouraged to rise to the occasion, to embrace a sense of public service, taking responsibility for checking on elderly neighbours and family members, delivering food and medical supplies or even cleaning public spaces. If they must remain at home, rather than teachers struggling to come up with time-filling exercises for bedroom-bound pupils to complete, perhaps each child could simply be sent a list of classic books to struggle through, think about and discuss with each other online – with the expectation that by the time school restarts children will have read every one. At least that way, even in the middle of a pandemic, children can continue to learn about what makes us human.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and director of the think tank, Cieo.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Dodgy Geezer

7th April 2020 at 8:52 am

In the 1950s kids had a host of indoor activities they could indulge in.

Reading, board games, stamp collection, building models – there were lots of active home entertainment possibilities.

Most of these have now shrunk or disappeared, destroyed by TV and then Computing. When was the last time you saw a model shop with kids spending their pocket money?

Perhaps enforced lockdown will start a revival of some of these home skills.. .

Ven Oods

4th April 2020 at 9:32 am

Covid-19 is a global medical emergency.
But only because we’ve chosen, as a herd, to make it so? How many who’ve died were on the point of expiry anyway?
The Italian figures suggest that fewer than 1% of deaths were of those who didn’t already have between 1 and 3 underlying health problems.

Lyn Keay

26th March 2020 at 12:54 pm

Are we teaching children to hide in their houses and cower in fear? Or will we teach them to screw their courage to the sticking-place and go out and be part of the solution. A few months ago all the child experts were talking about the need for children and young adults to learn how to be more resilient and how resilience had one of the most significant impacts on your health, wealth and happiness.

In 1968 80,000 people in the UK died of Hong Kong flu, but my mum’s diaries are full of the joys and trials of life. Of taking her children to the park and the seaside. On sitting in tea shops chatting to friends.

Gareth Edward KING

25th March 2020 at 10:17 pm

The Spanish government in its usual moments of wisdom is pondering on the possibility of cancelling this school year until the start of the next one in September. They really must think that the average Spanish household is spacious and well-equipped enough to have kids cooped up till late summer. But of course! One only has to look at Mr Pig-Tail in the shape of Vice-President: Pablo Iglesias and his partner Irene Montero (Iqualities Minister at the last count) and their oh-so-cheap-mansion in NW Madrid. But didn’t these pseudo-lefties used to campaign against people being evicted from their homes? Hypocrite? Turncoat? moi?

Stuart Mack

25th March 2020 at 7:18 pm

‘But this does mean that coronavirus will most likely exacerbate further the class inequalities already apparent throughout our education system.’
This is going to be the most stark outcome from closing down schools. There seems to have been no thought about how children will be educated at home. Most parents that I know are trying to educate their children to the best they can, but they are not qualified teachers (although the effectiveness of some ‘qualified’ teachers is questionable) and don’t always have the skills and knowledge of the curriculum to enable children to make progress.

Joe M

25th March 2020 at 6:35 pm

I’ll tell you one thing that will have an impact on a child’s development – having a parent or close relative die before their time.

Lyn Keay

25th March 2020 at 4:47 pm

There is no point locking children away when they do not seem to contribute to the spread of the disease. Dr Bruce Aylward is the epidemiologist that led the World Health Organisation’s Team Lead to China said in a press interview after the trip “We’re not seeing a lot of disease in kids. Look at flu, all the kids get sick…. That doesn’t happen with this disease.” and “We couldn’t find an example of where a child was the index case in a transmission chain that had led to the infection of an adult. Now that might just be people’s recall or bias or whatever, but it was an interesting insight.”
The full interview is available here for people who want to understand how the Chinese outbreak spread and was managed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vwshXayRQE&feature=youtu.be&t=3591

James Knight

25th March 2020 at 2:31 pm

The theory is that children are more likely to have some kind of cross immunity.

It was interesting to hear an astronaut this morning highlighting that long term isolation in space results in a weakened immune system. If so social isolation might have a downside.

Rob Dixon

25th March 2020 at 11:44 am

Joann, You’re an excellent columnist and I usually enjoy your stuff, however on this occasion I feel you’ve lost all sense of proportion. There was a time in the not too distant past when kids were put on trains and sent to live with strangers in order to shield the next generation from the horrors of the Blitz. A lot of kids never saw their fathers because their dads never actually returned from the war. Now that was tough.
Staying at home with your parents for twelve weeks or so in a warm, safe environment with food on the table is hardly likely to cause psychological damage…except possibly to the parents!
Spiked seems to be losing its grip at the moment, a number of the articles published recently have been of very low standard compared to your usual output.

Stephen Lindley

25th March 2020 at 11:04 am

Poor little things, how will they cope, I thought I was reading a guardian article for a moment. Try having to stay at home for 12 weeks like I have to. The young generation don’t Know how good they have it. There is lots of things you can do to keep your children occupied. Why does the government have to tell people what to do when you can use your common sense. Stop making excuses for your own lazy parenting because what it really comes down to is the inconvenience for yourself.

giday giday

25th March 2020 at 12:31 pm

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Jim Lawrie

25th March 2020 at 1:29 pm

You touch on a pretentious of modern parenting where many of them parents think themselves heroes because they take turn on a rota driving children from one formally organised activity to another. The rota makes more me time for mum.
A near neighbour of mine virtue signals by telling everyone how she walks her 3 year old to movement classes, dance sessions, music lessons, art classes etc …. Now she is hermetically sealed indoors.

Filbert Flange

25th March 2020 at 1:58 pm

Soon we will be up to the gunwales in the diseased little miscreants. Imagine a world where our streets and homes are patrolled by greta thunberg clones, angrily denouncing all and sundry ad hoc. Wait a minute…

KATHLEEN CARR

25th March 2020 at 11:04 am

Couldn’t pupils take their exams online at home-the exam board could modify questions as pupils haven’t done the full year’s work? Also BBC used to do school programmes , I think the music programme was by Jonathan Cohen (?) these could be re-shown rather than Bargain Hunt.

lisa massey

25th March 2020 at 1:19 pm

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Claire D

25th March 2020 at 1:25 pm

@Kathleen

Good ideas.

KATHLEEN CARR

25th March 2020 at 2:53 pm

Thanks-but I don’t understand why ‘they’ are not making use of technology-example just been to the chemists-they have decided to have different hours with only 3 people allowed in at a time so I had a long wait until it opened–not nice for the disabled and elderly-why not put the info online? Also the whole town was full of kids and mums with their kids , just hanging about (and getting in everyones way ), not shopping-if anyone of them had virus I am more likely to get it from them than normally.

Claire D

26th March 2020 at 9:10 am

@Kathleen

I agree with you, but I think we have to accept that everyone is learning how to work this situation as they go along. It’s not as if we’ve had any practice, we can’t even learn from history very much because 21st century society is so different to that of the early or middle 20th century. Some people are going to suffer, but I suppose if all of us do all we can to help, in whatever way we can, that suffering can be minimised.

Gareth Edward KING

25th March 2020 at 10:18 am

Here in Madrid children are also mercilessly locked up although those people with dogs can take the things out easily. Shouldn’t it be the other way round? That it’s not known the role that children play (or not) in the virus’ transmission should be excuse enough for them to be running around outside.
A couple of posts here suggest that Covid-19 is highly contagious, it’s not; measles is more than six times more contagious. Personally, I’d prefer a country that had higher demands on its citizens rather than seeing them as potential sources of viral contagion. Countries such as Mexico, Morocco and Portugal with relatively few cases are engaged in ‘lockdown’. Can’t Mexico see the irony of this approach? not to mention Brazil: as per 100,000 people you’re c. 100 x more likely to be assasinated there than in Spain (murder rates here are 0.6 per 100,000; the second lowest in Europe, I believe).

Filbert Flange

25th March 2020 at 2:17 pm

Those “things” are not only more obedient than the little pukes running feral in the streets, but are also much, much cheaper to keep and vastly less likely to denounce you to the authorities as a climate heretic.

Claire D

25th March 2020 at 9:03 am

I agree with much of what is said in the article, however, a pause for thought, a period of isolation and enforced boredom are not necessarily all bad. In the days when children often spent weeks being nursed through childhood illnesses they made great steps forward in development afterwards, both physical and intellectual. There is time for the imagination to take any direction it pleases, explore different possibilities and be creative; it is like a muscle that is suddenly exercised in a different way and develops accordingly.
The lack of books is worrying though and so is unmonitored, indefinite screen time.
But on the whole there is the potential for plenty of good to come out of this time for children, our society is far too bound up in educating children in a regimented way, a bit of freedom may have a surprisingly happy outcome for many.
I hope so anyway.

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NEIL DATSON

25th March 2020 at 7:51 am

Childhood changed (greatly for the worse in my opinion) when in the late 70s / early 80s parents became frightened that every third stranger was a paedophile and so their little darlings had to be driven the half mile to school. Now, I suppose they’ll grow up convinced that every third stranger is a source of killer plague.

Mark Houghton

25th March 2020 at 7:15 am

If we take this lockdown seriously then one thing the kids might not miss out on is another 5 or 10 years with grandparents who are still alive.

alan smithee

25th March 2020 at 7:14 am

Diddums. Its not about losing liberties it’s about saving lives. One selfish person can lead to 59,000 infections. Change the record Spiked, you’ve lost your sense of reality.

T Zazoo

25th March 2020 at 12:36 am

After reading this article I thought I’d come to The Guardian by mistake.

“Not only do they have nothing to do and no useful role to play – worse, they are getting the message that they are poisonous to their relatives and those around them and must stay hidden away for everyone’s benefit.”

Sorry but that’s one of the characteristics of infectious disease, that you might be poisonous to your relatives and those around you.

alan smithee

25th March 2020 at 7:14 am

Exactly Zazoo!

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