By Nicole Leuci Gilmer
Raising toddlers has always been an undertaking not suitable for the weak- hence the stereotypes of the “terrible twos” and “threenagers.” However, the parents, teachers, and caretakers of todays’ toddlers are reporting a new level of tantrums, overstimulation, and clinginess as these “pandemic babies” begin to experience life outside of quarantines and social distancing for the first time. Many of these kiddos currently in “toddlerhood” were either infants or not even born when Covid hit in 2020. They, along with children up to kindergarten age, have no memories pre-pandemic and think of face masks, hand sanitizer, and curbside pickups as the norm. So, if they didn’t experience life before the pandemic, why does it seem to have impacted them so strongly? How can we, as parents and educators, help this group of young children acclimate to the overstimulation of being around groups of people and adjust our own parenting styles to help them along? Outside of patience and regular decompression breaks (for both the parents and the toddlers) PLAY is one of the most important tools you can utilize to your advantage!
When daycares, businesses, and offices closed, parents and their children began spending all day, everyday together. While this may sound like a dream to be at home all day with your kids, when you add in the stress of still trying to do your job, your child’s schooling, and meeting the overall needs of the family, it becomes much more difficult than many anticipated. Screen time averages rose for people of all age groups during this time, which is to be expected, but does not help our already rising cortisol (stress hormone) levels. A study that came out in March of 2022 surveyed more than 350 families that had a baby during the pandemic and found that 25% of babies born during this time did not meet another child of their age range within the first year of life. The same study found that, on average, these babies only met one person that was not in their immediate family during the first six months of their life. Meaning these families had no village, no support, and no help physically during this time. When prompted to select words from a bank to describe their feelings towards having a baby during the pandemic, the top word chosen by more than 44% of the parents was “lonely,” followed by “isolating.” Finally, out of the first-time parents surveyed about their experience having a child during a pandemic, only 8% chose the word “happy” to describe their experience (Sledge et al, 2022).
Additionally, there have been concerns over the social and intellectual development of kids during this time period. However, new research shows that, surprisingly, the toddler age group from the pandemic is the least affected educationally by the lockdowns and quarantines. This is believed to be largely due to the fact that toddlers need different things for successful intellectual development compared to other age groups. Toddlers benefit most from physical and sensory activities. Although this feels reassuring for parents of toddlers, the question still remains how we can help our wild child learn the differences in what we do and not do at home versus while we are out and about. You can strategize this by understanding the different types of play and which one may be the most beneficial to your child in the moment.
Researchers and scientists have broken play down into various categories, some of which are more relevant to certain age groups. When discussing these “Pandemic Babies”/toddlers, we are going to concentrate on a few specific types: Active Play, Attunement Play, and Creative Play. These play types are very different from each other and, therefore, some may be more appealing to your child than others, but they each hold their own benefits.
Definition: During this type of play, a child is physically engaging the majority of their body in an activity.
Examples: Babies rocking back and forth when learning to crawl, toddlers climbing on every surface (yes, even the highest, most dangerous spot that you never thought they could get to), and older children running around at the playground engaged in a game of freeze tag (Brown, 2019).
When a child may need this type of play: When displaying anger, aggression, or anxiety. Additionally, a child should engage in some form of active play each day for the overall health benefits.
The benefits of Active Play: Teaches spatial awareness, creates an understanding of their bodies and the world around them (hello gravity!), develops muscle control and strength, and increases dopamine production (We love a happy baby!) (How We Play, 2022).
Definition: The base state of play. Typically, the first type of play an infant engages in, and will continue throughout their life into adulthood. An infant and their caretaker will synchronize their brain rhythms and create a very pure form of intimacy (Attunement Play, 2022). This synchronization in infancy and toddlerhood is the foundations for their later emotion self-regulation abilities.
Examples: Gazing into a baby’s eyes, playing peek-a-boo with a toddler, or copycatting your adolescence’s silly expressions back at them.
When a child may need this type of play: When a child is feeling unsure about a situation or doubtful in their ability to accomplish something. These types are playful interactions can be helpful in a situation where the child may need reassurance from a trusted person in their life.
The benefits of Attunement Play: Assists in the foundation of emotional self-regulation, trustworthiness, and playfulness.
Definition: Play where children are free to express themselves through creating, imagining, and discovering the world that surrounds them.
Examples: Learning to build block towers as a toddler, creating stories and other imaginative play as they mature, and the obvious activities, like coloring, painting, and playing make believe.
When a child may need this type of play: If they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, especially in new situations, like starting a new school or moving homes. Creative play can also be helpful for children to articulate their needs and open up to a trusted adult, such as about bullying or other social and emotional issues.
The benefits of Creative Play: Improves concentration and deep-thinking levels, develops fine motor skills, demonstrates their individuality, and lowers cortisol levels (Kiwi Families, 2022).
Every child is different, and their needs, wants, desires, and play styles will be as well. As parents, we are all just trying our best in this newly post-pandemic world of parenting. Remember to grant yourself a little grace, understand that toddler parents around the world are feeling and relating to your pain, and it will get better and easier to manage- especially when you have the play tools in your kit to utilize when you need to!
If you’re looking for loose-part play products that are perfect for any type of play types, check out any of the products from my friends here at Imagination Playground! My toddler personally loves her Blue Blocks – and they’re durable enough to stand up to her wild pandemic-baby self!
Also, check out that research study on parents and the pandemic here:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8905983/ (do it- super interesting stuff!)
“Attunement Play.” National Institute for Play, 22 Sept. 2022, https://www.nifplay.org/what-is-play/types-of-play/attunement-play/.
Sledge, H., Lawler, M., Hourihane, J., Franklin, R., Boland, F., Dunne, S., McCallion, N., O'Mahony, L., & Byrne, S. (2022). Parenting a newborn baby during the COVID-19 pandemic: a qualitative survey. BMJ pediatrics open, 6(1), e001348. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjpo-2021-001348
Brown, Dr. Stuart. “7 Types of Play & What They Accomplish: Outdoor Playsets San Antonio.”
Rainbow Play Systems of Texas, 7 June 2019, https://www.rpsoftexas.com/7-types-of-play/.
“How We Play.” National Institute for Play, 5 Oct. 2022, https://www.nifplay.org/what-is-play/types-of-play/.
Team, The Kiwi Families. “Benefits of Learning through Creative Play.” Kiwi Families, 5 Aug. 2022,