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How Parents Can Help Their Unvaccinated Toddlers Stay Safe On the Playground

Alison Leighton

Oh, the beloved playground, every child’s favorite place to visit. But for some parents of toddlers, the trip is cause for concern — although the Food and Drug Administration recently authorized the emergency use of the COVID-vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, unvaccinated babies and toddlers are still vulnerable to infection. And with outdoor play presenting lower risk for the transmission of COVID-19, it’s not surprising that playgrounds and parks are a draw for parents, even as the weather cools.

As a mother, I have questions about playground safety: What is considered a risky interaction? How should I communicate our boundaries to families that are unmasked? And what’s the best way for my toddler to advocate for himself? 

For help, I asked experts for the scoop on keeping kids safer at the playground.

Communicate Boundaries to Your Children

At this point in the pandemic, most families have solidified their views on “risky” behavior, which experts say is important before playing in public spaces. “Identify and assess the risk, develop a plan to mitigate it, and present an age-appropriate version to your kids before you go to the playground,” Dr. Meredith Grossman, a New York City-based family clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows.

However, you’ll likely encounter a spectrum of parents and kids wearing (or not wearing) masks and with various interpretations of “social distance.” So share boundaries with your little ones in a gentle but direct way. “It’s important that children are aware of [the dangers of] COVID-19, otherwise they’ll see and feel changes with no explanation,” Jennie Monness, an early-childhood and parenting educator and co-founder of the New York City-based Union Square Play, tells SheKnows, adding that respecting other people should be the focus of any approach. 

“Try to avoid provoking fear so that your children aren’t scared when they see new people,” she adds. For example, tell your child that it’s impossible to tell from looking at a person whether or not he or she received the COVID-19 shot, so being generally careful around others is key. “You can explain that it’s why we don’t touch other people’s [sand toys] and we take our shoes off and wash our hands when we come home,” she says.

“Consider the types of toys and food you’re comfortable bringing to a shared environment and help children set their expectations.”

Prepare Food & Toys 

Consider the types of toys and food you’re comfortable bringing to a shared environment and help children set their expectations. For instance, Grossman allows her 4-year-old child to bring a soccer ball to the park with the understanding that he may have to put it away if lots of children want to use it. However, her 2-year-old child’s scooter and toys stay home to avoid conflict.

It’s also okay to set boundaries once you arrive at the playground, such as allowing your toddler to wait in line for the play structure but having them step out if it gets too crowded or only using sandbox toys that are disposable or that you’re comfortable leaving behind if they wind up in other hands.

And the same strategy applies to food  — in the past, you may not have minded three pairs of little hands digging into a snack bag or if a toddler accidentally drank from the wrong sippy cup, however now those behaviors could trigger anxiety for parents. Monness advises setting rules like food and drink is consumed only when apart from other kids or discouraging sharing.

Encourage Kids to Express Themselves

Kids can learn how to express themselves, even if they’re still developing communication skills. And according to Dr. Judith Hoffman, a pediatrician and co-owner of Manhattan Valley Pediatrics in New York, children between the ages of four and five may be likelier to vocalize if someone is or isn’t wearing a mask and tell them to put it on. “But you don’t want them to be the ‘germ police,'” Hoffman tells SheKnows. “Focus on reinforcing the behaviors that your family is comfortable with by saying, ‘We want to stay healthy, and in our family, we wear masks. Some other families may feel differently, but we wear them.'”

That said, young children shouldn’t feel as though they have to reinforce rules or tattle on playmates. Clarify that if your kid sees someone without a mask who wants to play, they can ask you how you feel about it. Your child should also know that it’s OK to decline to play with kids with whom they aren’t comfortable. “Teaching them to say, ‘I want some space’ (or put up a hand to indicate that), or simply saying ‘No’ empowers kids to communicate without becoming physical,” notes Monness.

“Parents are the best advocates for their children, so don’t hesitate to assert yourself, even if you fear offending another family.”

Advocate For Your Child

At the end of the day, parents are the best advocates for their children, so don’t hesitate to assert yourself, even if you fear offending another family. For example, if you’re uncomfortable because someone’s child has a runny nose, you might say to their parent, “We’re going to keep our kids apart because we often see grandparents who are vulnerable to COVID-19,” suggests Monness.

Likewise, if a kid’s mask is slipping down their face, you can move your child away or express your discomfort to the other parent. “The burden is on the parent who is most anxious and risk-averse,” reminds Hoffman.

And remember that just because you express your feelings, it doesn’t mean all parents will be in agreement. “Stick to your values, respond to others with kindness, and model how to disagree,” says Grossman. That’s true even if a parent responds negatively. “You can explain to your kid that sometimes anxiety shows as anger, but it doesn’t mean someone is good or bad — just that they need to calm down.” And if you’re the one who lost their temper, remind yourself that no one is perfect.

There is no fool-proof formula for playground safety, however, empowering yourself (and your child) with boundaries and respecting other families’ decisions will help make outdoor play a more enjoyable experience.

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