Explaining social distancing to a 3-year-old

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Suddenly, your child spends all day with you. It used to just be on the weekends (how fun!) but now, it’s every day (how fun?). Your child is probably thinking, “Where are my friends? Where is the playground? Is Mommy’s office the new jungle gym?” They’ve gained You Time every day, but they may also feel a loss of their “old” life - the routine or their playmates at daycare or school. They may not be able to articulate their wonderings or feelings of loss, but they’re in there.

So, how do you put them at ease while still vigilantly following social distancing guidelines?

One helpful technique in an early childhood classroom is to frame the rules so that they’re not personal. Because there is no one for them to say “no” to this way, it helps them follow guidelines.

For example, when it’s time to transition from one fun activity to cleaning up, teachers don’t say “I think we should clean up.” If they did, you would have 10 children objecting in all the lovely and creative ways they do so. Instead, we say, “It’s time to clean up. The clock says 11:45 and lunch is at 12:00, so we have to clean up now.” This gives them a reason to follow instructions.

In explaining our new normal, we don’t say words like government, doctors, infections, pandemics (yikes). Unknown words and words that may cause stress shouldn’t be used. We need to reduce the concept of our situation to one they can grasp. It may seem daunting, but there are plenty of translation tools you already have at your disposal:

  • Toys! What do they love to do with their blocks? They love to build towns with post offices and roads and cars, etc.

  • Books! What books do they love? Try stories with villages and neighbors.

  • Everyday routines. What do they do every day? Follow rules. You can talk about rules at home and in the classroom and explain that towns have rules too. Communities have rules to protect families and children and right now, the rule is for us to stay home most of the time. We cannot go to the regular places we go to - like daycare, a friends’ home or restaurants. Community leaders want to make sure that everything is OK with the whole town and following these new, temporary rules is part of being a responsible member of our community.

  • Positive descriptions and healthy words. Negative language may plant a little fear that they will get sick too. Because young children don’t have the vocabulary to express how they feel all the time, they tend to hold some emotions in. They often let their imagination run amok in their sweet little minds until they think that everyone is sick or will become sick. Their imagination is a beautiful skill, but keep it positive.

  • Most importantly, let them ask questions.

Free resources:

New York Public Library

Mentioned on this page are links to sign up for a library card online (it's free) and then you will have access to the library's digital collection. There are tons of great picture books both on SimplyE and Tumblebooks.

Scripted Story for Children on Corona

Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems

Children's Museum of the Arts

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