Experts are researching indirect impacts on children’s development as a result of COVID-19

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When COVID-19 closed playgroups, Rhaikit Thintuep remembers how worried she was about her two children’s learning development.

She regularly takes her three-year-old Glory to a playgroup in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, where she builds social, language and fine motor skills through play with other children.

Mrs Thintuep is of Burmese heritage and English is not her first language, so the playgroup also gives her and her daughter a chance to practice.

“I can’t teach, [I was] so worried,” she said.

“Watching TV is very boring, so I love coming here for myself and for my children.”

    A woman with her arm around her young daughter playing with sand
Rhaikit Thintuep and her three-year-old daughter Glory are happy to be back in the playgroup. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

Although Mrs. Thintuep and her children participated in a virtual playgroup with the community during COVID, she noticed that when Glory returned to the playgroup in person, she had become more afraid of other people after spending so much time with only her family.

Louisa Eze also remembers how difficult it was to look after and teach her three children, including Lucy, from home.

She, too, is concerned about the potential effects COVID restrictions and shutdowns could have had on her children’s learning.

“I was very worried because it was hard, especially the kids with masks,” she said.

A woman holds her young daughter outside a building with plants nearby
Louise Eze and her daughter Lucy Tamba participate in the playgroup.(ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

Research underway

Research into the indirect effects of COVID on children in Australia is still in the early stages, but is already showing that it has affected children’s development.

Professor Sharon Goldfeld of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute said that while the actual virus itself did not affect children too badly, they bore the brunt of the indirect effects.

“For the first time in a long time, we’ve had a slight increase in children’s developmental vulnerability,” she said.

“In other words, they do not do as well in one or more of the domains of physical, social, emotional, language or communication.

“These impacts are greatest on lower-income, lower-resource families, and the concern is the inequality we already had before the pandemic gets bigger.”

Three women sit and clap
Facilitators lead the group singing, which parents can also join in on. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

She said the indirect effects on children would continue to emerge over time and would be a focus of research going forward.

In a research paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia, Professor Goldfeld found that increased screen time and less outdoor activity due to COVID restrictions could also have influenced the development.

Her research informs the Australian Early Development Census, conducted last year, which assesses five areas of child development: physical health and well-being; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.

Seven small children play with a wooden box with sand and flowers in an indoor setting
The children play with natural elements such as sand and flowers.(ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

It found for the first time since 2009 that the percentage of children who were “on track” in the five areas had fallen.

It also showed a “small but significant” increase in the percentage of children who faced significant challenges in one or more areas where language and cognitive skill development were most affected.

Professor Goldfeld said that in addition to school and learning center closures, parental stress could have been a contributing factor because parents may not have communicated as well with their children.

Playgroups make changes

In response to recent census data, Catholic Education South Australia (CESA) has adapted its supported playgroup programs to have a greater focus on language, with group singing a large part of this strategy.

A smiling woman rests her arm on a table surrounded by small children playing
Emily Bowden is an independent early years consultant with Catholic Education South Australia. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

CESA’s early years consultant Emily Bowden said group singing could help with language development because of the rhyme and repetition in songs, so it had incorporated more group singing into the playgroup programs across its 60 centres.

“We train [playgroup facilitators] according to what the data shows us,” she said.

Professor Goldfeld said she hoped education and early childhood authorities would use the lessons learned from the pandemic to improve equality.

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