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Kids are 'playing COVID': Why it's a good thing

If a stuffed animal has to wear a mask now, experts say that's a healthy part of play.
Photo illustration of little girl playing doctor with a teddy bear both wearing face masks
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Chelsea Carr is good and vaccinated — she's gotten a dose of Johnson & Johnson, and many more pretend shots from her 2-year-old daughter.

"My daughter gives me COVID shots with the fake syringe in her doctor’s kit. I’ve probably had at least 20 injections so far," said Carr, a mother of two in Maryland.

A number of children are incorporating COVID-19 into their play, according to parents, teachers and psychologists. Children create scenarios where they pretend to care for others with COVID, get sick, or even die.

"We have a lot of caring for sick baby dolls in our 2- and 3-year-olds," said Tovah Klein, Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. "We had a little girl who was laying on the bed the other day and told her parents, ‘I’m dead. I have COVID.’"

These days, lots of stuffed animals are wearing masks or having their temperatures taken before they can enter a play store, said Laura Markham, author of "Aha Parenting."

And the experts agree that kind of play is almost always a good thing.

"I think it’s actually pretty healthy. That’s separation play, and there’s a lot of talk about illness and sickness and people dying, and so children are playing games around that," said Klein, author of "How Toddlers Thrive."

"Children play out their life experience, so I’m taking care of this baby doll the way mommy and daddy are taking care of me."

COVID play might signal a fear children haven't expressed, including that a parent could get sick. Children might not express that overtly, or might try to protect parents from the fear.

"Most kids were worried during COVID that their parents would die," Markham said. "So if there's a lot of play of orphans lost in the forest, you know, you want to pay attention to that."

Children incorporated darkness into their play long before COVID. Playing doctor or caring for a sick doll are regular parts of toddler play. "Ring Around the Rosie" has been said to originate with the plague — though that's probably not true.

Still, plenty of children's stories and games feature dark elements.

Children tend to become fascinated by death at age 4 or 5 in normal circumstances, Klein said. She thinks that's part of what makes dinosaurs so compelling to preschoolers.

"They were big and they were fierce, and then they disappeared. They died," she said. When Klein sees a child becoming interested in dinosaurs, she warns parents to expect questions about death soon after.

That's almost always a normal, healthy part of development.

Parents should be concerned if a child is stuck on COVID play compulsively, or if the same game happens repeatedly and doesn't change, the experts said. That would be a signal that the child is stuck, or working through something difficult.

But for the most part, children are taking care of others during play time and they either miraculously get better or slowly return to health.

"Our children learn through play. And one of the things that children do best is cope with fears through play," said Jennifer Miller, an expert on social and emotional learning at Confident Parents, Confident Kids. "Showing up in children's play is their way of conquering their fears, managing their fears. And it's a really good thing."

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