Babies, toddlers and preschoolers learn primarily through play.
Social activity is critical for their social, emotional and intellectual development. During the pandemic, however, young children lost countless opportunities to play with other children.
Now, early childhood educators are trying to step into that gap.
The Mehlville School District in the St. Louis area began hosting special events last month for the youngest children in the district in an effort to promote social connections and reading.
Erin Amador, coordinator of the district's Parents as Teachers early childhood program, saw a need for young children to have more opportunities to learn how to connect with one another.
The district tried a pizza giveaway party in a park. They adopted the "Books and Bites" program, which offers families a chance to meet new people, play together and take home free books and a cooking kit to match the theme of the books. But only 10 families showed up for the first event.
Two weeks later, the district tried again. The books included stories about diverse characters and a frozen pizza to take home.
Again, about 10 families attended.
Amador said she wondered if families were ready to socialize with others or if they had the time and energy for these kinds of events. Children under 5 years old are still too young to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and some parents still feel nervous about the risks of attending in-person events.
Still, she wanted the district to try again.
Early childhood educators promoted their third event to the families they visit in their homes, and also sent home flyers through the elementary schools.
This time, 100 families showed up.
"It was amazing," Amador said. Parents told her how much they'd missed being with other families and watching their kids play together.
The district's efforts are part of a larger initiative called BeTogetherSTL. The St. Louis County Children's Service Fund awarded a $175,000 grant to the LUME Institute, a St. Louis nonprofit focused on early childhood education, to launch the program.
Steve Zwolak, CEO of LUME and executive director of the University City Children's Center, said the goal of the initiative is to create family-friendly events to promote loving parent and child interactions.
Pandemic isolation took a social and emotional toll on the youngest children and their parents, Zwolak said. Some young children returned to day care centers and preschools with more aggressive behavior and less ability to self-regulate.
"How do we learn to play together again?" he asked.
Bonding and connecting with others is a critical way to improve mental health, he said. The BeTogetherSTL program offers a mix of in-person and virtual events, including concerts, book giveaways, online parent discussion groups and a "Hanging With Mr. Z" video series. In the 8- to 10-minute videos, he tackles topics such as "helping children go from rage to assertion" and talking about difficult current events.
He hopes the programming will help strengthen families by developing these protective factors: helping parents develop their own resilience, creating more social support for families, fostering family engagement and teaching about child development.
"I absolutely see lingering effects of the pandemic every day," he said. For children, healing from the trauma of the pandemic requires developing secure attachments. Improving mental health also requires strengthening attachment and relationships.
There are lessons for other communities in Mehlville's slow start with its program. Offering multiple options in various locations and addressing parental concerns are key to increasing participation.
Amador says she saw the benefits of repeatedly trying to foster these connections in her own district.
"You could tell we had families who hadn't played together in years," she said.
She described the look of excitement on young kids' faces when they arrived at the playground filled with other children at the third "Books and Bites" event.
Some of them would hesitate and look back at their parents, unsure of whether to join, she said. After seeing a nod and smile of approval from a parent, they would race onto the playground.
"Their smiles, the energy of the whole day felt so good," Amador said.
Parents came up to her and said they had forgotten how much they missed moments like this.
"I missed talking to people at the park," they said. "I missed seeing my child play."