Arranging a play date for kids these days can feel stressful. You’re worried about exposing them to COVID-19 — and you’re balancing that concern with children’s very real need to reconnect with their friends. Kids have been through a lot over the past few months. They need a chance to run around and just have some fun.
But how to give them that space, while also limiting the chance that an innocent play date could spread COVID-19?
HuffPost Parents spoke with three experts who shared their advice on what questions you must ask ahead of time, as well as some big-picture ideas about minimizing risk while kids play.
1. Here’s what we’ve been doing. How does that sound to you?
It’s not necessarily easy to start a conversation with another family about how they’ve handled the pandemic. Parents want to be thoughtful, but they also don’t want to come across as judgmental, said Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Chicago. She’s a mom and she knows how difficult it is to walk that line.
One idea is to lead with yourself.
“I find that putting forth your view first and saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve been thinking. We’ve been really diligent about staying home and keeping the kids quarantined, and one adult goes to the grocery store ... but we really want to get our kids out and having social experiences. What kind of things have you guys been doing?’” Bartlett said.
Be pretty detailed and comprehensive, so they’ll hopefully be detailed and comprehensive in return.
And be prepared for a range of responses from, “Oh, my gosh, we’re not ready to open up our circle yet!” to “We’ve been doing everything for months now!” she said.
But once the other parent or caregiver has described what their family has been been up to, you can get a good sense of whether your risk tolerances line up.
2. Who have you guys seen during the past two weeks?
“I’m very sympathetic to parents who are stuck home with their children and who want their kids to have social interaction, but who also want to have adult interaction with someone other than their partner themselves,” said Bartlett.
However, it’s important to recognize that when your kid plays with another kid, they’re being exposed to everyone that other child has been exposed to.
Which means your family is being exposed as well.
That’s not necessarily a problem; but it is a reminder to be really deliberate.
“It’s not a ‘don’t do it,’ it’s a ‘do it mindfully and thoughtfully,’” Bartlett said. Make sure you can answer the question yourself, and that you can give another parent or family a clear, honest sense of anyone you’ve come into contact with over the past several weeks.
3. Has anyone in the house had a cough or fever?
This is a question that’s so simple and basic, some families might overlook it. But it’s really important to ask: “Has your child (or anyone in the home or anyone in contact with the child) been sick with a fever, cough, trouble breathing in the last 14 days?” recommended Dr. Catherine Soprano, a pediatrician with Nemours Children’s Health System.
“If the answer is yes, even if they have been tested for COVID-19 and were negative, I would not allow my child to be in contact with that child,” Soprano said.
4. Will the play date be outdoors? Will the kids wear masks?
If there’s one thing experts consistently recommend when it comes to safe(r) play dates, it’s that heading outdoors is a very, very good idea. A lot of researchers now believe that the virus that causes COVID-19 isn’t just transmitted through large respiratory droplets; it may be spread through tiny aerosols that can linger in the air for hours. Air currents outdoors dilute those droplets much faster than if kiddos are sitting together inside.
“I think the number-one question parents should ask is, ‘Is this play date going to be taking place outside or in an open area?’” said Dr. Priya Soni, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Being indoors, in close contact with an infected person, is a “very big factor” in the transmission of COVID-19, she said.
Likewise, Soprano has called the risk of one or two kids playing together outside “quite low.”
That is not to say that play dates must be outdoors, but it’s something to strongly consider — and definitely something you want to have a sense of ahead of time.
Same goes for masks. Whether you and any other parents decide your kids should wear them while they’re hanging out is up to you, but you should absolutely have agreed on that ahead of time. Also, Soprano added that being consistent about mask wearing can make it easier for kids to accept.
“I would advocate for masks for every person who is 2 years old and older in any situation when they could come in contact with any person who they do not live with,” she said. “Thinking of masks in this way may actually help children to be more compliant with wearing the mask.”
5. What is happening where we live?
This is really a question for both sets of parents or caregivers to ask themselves: What is local transmission like in your area right now? And is this a moment to be heading out or hunkering down a bit more?
“I think the main thing right now, with various states seeing an increase in cases and being in various phases of reopening, is to consider how your state is doing,” said Soni.
For example, she’s based in Los Angeles, which is seeing a surge of cases. “Our numbers are not moving in the right direction right now, so play dates are going to be a much riskier activity,” Soni said.
This is something parents are going to have to monitor for some time, and you should expect it to change. It might feel relatively low-risk to have a play date right now, but not necessarily in a few weeks’ time, and vice versa.
And a few extra safety tips...
In addition to considering having the play date outdoors, and requiring the kids to wear masks if you choose, think about what they’ll be doing. Will they be doing activities that require a lot of close physical contact? Will they be sharing food together? What kind?
“Will each child get their own small bag of Goldfish crackers that has been pre-packaged and sealed or are the Goldfish crackers in sandwich bags that were handled by the friend’s parent?” Soprano asked. Yes, these details seem small, but they matter.
Limiting the number of kids is a good idea, said Soni, who said she really wouldn’t recommend play dates of more than two or three kids right now.
Also, wipe down any toys kids might play with beforehand and after, and encourage hand-washing. Surface transmission isn’t the primary way the virus spreads, but you do want to be mindful of “high-touch” surfaces, Soni said.
Experts are still learning about the coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
I think the number-one question parents should ask is, 'Is this play date going to be taking place outside or in an open area?' Dr. Priya Soni, pediatric infectious disease specialist, Cedars-Sinai
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.