How remote education and playground closures are affecting children’s mental health

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

With LA’s new citywide stay-at-home order, children are not able to socialize on playgrounds or in schools. How is that affecting their mental health? KCRW talks with Tara Niendam, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and licensed child psychologist at UC Davis.

KCRW: The playground isn’t just for exercise, but for kids to interact with each other. If kids can’t go there, what social needs aren’t being met? 

Tara Niendam: “That social milieu, as we call it, on the playground, it's a very dynamic place for children to be able to express themselves creatively, practice their negotiation skills, practice setting boundaries. We don't quite realize all of the important things that happen on a playground. And I think that this is especially important for younger children, children in the elementary school age and preschool age, where they again are getting to test out these skills, maybe they've been learning in the classroom, things like sharing, taking turns, saying ‘no, thank you.’ And so it's a really important time.” 

It’s also a time for them to feel happy and free, right? They don't have to sit still and necessarily follow orders (within reason). 

“Yes, that's very true. And that's part of the reason why schools include recess is because they recognize that developmentally, young children are not really built to stay in a seat and pay attention for long periods of time. They need to get up and move their bodies, and run and jump, and do all of those things. They're very important parts of cognitive development for young children. 

… Many homes in California, apartments, condos may not have access to open spaces where kids can safely go out and play. So these children are now inside in a seat for hours on end, sitting in front of a screen. It really isn't the best place for them developmentally. Though right now, it might be the safest place for them and their physical health.”

Mentally, what kinds of effects are you seeing?

“In our clinic, and UC Davis, as well as in my own children, I have a 6 year old and an 8 year old, I've been seeing a variety of things. I'm seeing a lot of anxiety. This is a very challenging situation for them. 

For adults, many of us are used to being in front of a computer. And many of us were used to Zoom meetings. And so this isn't as much of a change for us. 

But for them, it is a drastic change. So they're anxious, it's harder to learn this way. That increases their stress when they feel like they're not understanding or doing well. Because they don't have the simple interactions with teachers that they had before. A teacher coming up and touching them on the shoulder and saying, ‘Good job, you've got this,’ or ‘Oh look, you've missed this one thing.’ You know, they're kind of, in many ways, left to figure it out on their own. And that's very anxiety provoking and very stressful. 

I'm also noticing a lot of children having a lot more negative self talk. ‘I can't do this. I'm not smart enough. I'm not good enough.’ They've internalized the experience, as opposed to being able to say, ‘This isn't about me, this is about the situation that I'm in, and I can make it through this situation.’ 

Changes in sleep, changes in appetite and energy. It's taking its toll.

...I think especially in younger children, what I'm seeing is a lot of avoidance. And we see this in anxiety disorders in general. Let's not do the thing that's stressing us out. And it's a pretty common coping skill. And we see it a lot in kids. And so for example, my 6-year-old son, he's in kindergarten, and he was really struggling, and it was stressful. And so he would hide under the desk, or he would hide in his room, and we had to go searching for him. And that increased our frustration, which then increases his stress. And it becomes a vicious loop of everyone being stressed out by just trying to get him in his seat for his class. So I think we see avoidance.”

Is that different than in older kids and teenagers? Teenagers don’t necessarily hide under desks to avoid going to class, but they probably just don't show up, they sleep through it, or they're texting their friends. They’re doing other forms of avoidance.

“Yes, that's exactly what we're seeing. The teenagers, they're not showing up for class. Or they're showing up, they don't have the screen on, they don't have their camera on. And that's not something they could have gotten away with in a regular classroom. And so when you don't have your camera on, or your mic on, you don't even have to be by the camera. So they can go play some video games. And so it may be avoidance.

I think we're also seeing not just the anxiety, but signs of depression that are also being manifest during this time. So a lack of interest, a lack of motivation for these important goal-directed activities. Everything is just kind of blah. And I think we're seeing a lot more of that in our teenagers. That sadness, we're seeing it in the young kids too. But that's sadness of ‘I'm away from my friends. Am I going to graduate? I'm not doing well.’ 

We're also seeing some kids who've missed school, and now feel like they can't catch up. ‘So why should I care?’ And they kind of give up.”

Then there's no real accountability, or so it seems, because you're isolated from the authority figures? How can parents help their kids through this?

“I just want to take a second to acknowledge the intense stress that many parents are under right now. Keeping a roof over their head, keeping food on the table, the lights on. … Parents right now have, hopefully, if they're lucky, a job during the day. And then they have to come home to this second job at night. Or if they don't have a job during the day, they're trying to figure out some way to get money to be able to support their family. So we have these poor parents, who themselves are overwhelmed and stressed out, now being asked to be their kids’ teacher. 

And yes, I may have a Ph.D. in psychology, but I do not have a degree in early childhood education. So even for my own kids, I'm like, ‘Okay, math, how do I teach you division? Let's think about that.’ And I'm coming from a place of privilege, where I have resources that I can use, I can draw from, to be able to do that work. And it's still hard for me. 

So when I think of what I want to say to parents ... I want to think of the thing that's going to help the whole family. So one of those things I like to suggest is just being consistent in your schedule. It is so easy, when things are stressful, to just let the schedule go out the window, let the kids stay up … everything just gets off track. And kids need consistency. I think their bodies need consistency in terms of sleep, and wake, and exercise, and food. And honestly, it benefits adults too. 

So if the whole family can just stay on a schedule of when we go to bed, when we get up, when we eat our meals, that alone can help to take a lot of stress out of that family unit. But that relies heavily on the parents being consistent, so they have to see value in it for themselves.”



  • Tara Niendam - associate psychiatry professor and licensed child psychologist at UC Davis