With the continuing spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) across the United States, everyone is talking about social distancing. I just found out that my three kids will be out of school for at least the next two weeks. Like many parents, I'm wondering just what it means to practice social distancing. I'm also trying to figure out how to navigate these unfamiliar and stressful disruptions.
Why is it important to practice social distancing?
Social distancing is a new term to many of us that, according to the CDC, means “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” This leaves a lot of grey area, but what’s important to know is that social distancing is a preventative measure, not a reason to panic or hoard food and supplies.
When we practice social distancing (by closing schools, canceling sport and cultural events, encouraging working remotely, etc.), it provides a way to slow the spread of a virus so that the number of people who are sick at the same time does not exceed the capacity of the healthcare system.
You may have heard the term flattening the curve. This refers to a graph that demonstrates what happens when we take measures to slow the rate of infection versus when we don’t, and it’s being widely shared on social media. Flattening the curve instead of experiencing a large spike in cases simultaneously will help relieve a lot of stress on our healthcare system. Ultimately, this will save lives, but we all need to do our part.
One big plus is that we can still be outside.
The other day I was outside watching a news clip on my phone. Then I glanced up and noticed what was going on around me. My five-year-old was filling a dump truck full of dirt and rocks and dumping them onto our driveway. Birds were energetically chirping in a tree I had planted years before. And the promise that spring was right around the corner was evident in all my surroundings.
The juxtaposition of current world events with the beauty of seasons changing was clearly evident, and it gave me hope. “At least we can be outside.” I thought, taking a deep breath. But what does that look like?
When the lieutenant governor of Utah (my home state) gave his address concerning the decision to shut down all schools for at least two weeks, he mentioned that we should still go outside and even walk to the park. Yes, it's important to keep your distance from other people. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t spend time in your backyard or garden. It doesn't mean you can't go for a run or take the dog for a walk.
Outdoor play is especially beneficial for children. One study found that “the more connected a child feels to the natural world, the more inclined s/he is to engage in sustainable behaviors, which in turn leads to greater happiness.” We could all benefit from a greater happiness right now, especially considering that social distancing can make us feel lonely and depressed and that feelings of anxiety are also common during a pandemic.
Can being outside help with feelings of loneliness and anxiety?
According to one study, “Living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits.” Spending time outdoors has been shown to relieve stress, strengthen immunity, and improve mood. Outdoor play is particularly important for children, and during these times of social distancing, it may just be the perfect way to blow off some steam while getting some vitamin D.
Let’s encourage kids to ride their bikes, dig in the dirt, and jump in the puddles. Between indoor time, playing board games, and doing school work, let's get them moving. Getting the online instruction they need for school is important, but getting outside will benefit everybody.
Let’s trust kids to grasp the importance of this moment.
When I discuss the coronavirus pandemic with my three sons, I tell them that we are all in this together. I want them to understand why we are doing social distancing, and it’s importance. Last year I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, and I have been on immunosuppressant medications. My sons are aware that I am in a higher-risk category for COVID-19. They know many others are, too.
I want them to know that it's important to take extra precautions to help others. This means frequent handwashing and avoiding crowds). Empowering children and allowing them to make choices during this time can help to ease their anxiety over the changes and disruptions in their life.
For right now, our family is taking things one day at a time. We are following the directive to practice social distancing, appreciating the extra time spent together, and getting outside as much as possible.