Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash.

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The fact that Jessie-Lee McIsaac’s toddler wanders into the room while the Mount Saint University professor is being interviewed about her latest project highlights just how different life is for families in a COVID-19 world.

The researcher and her team at the university’s Early Childhood Collaborative Research Centre launched a survey last week to study the effects of the pandemic on Maritime families with young children between the ages of zero to eight.

“It will give us an understanding of what kinds of supports families need in these types of global pandemic situations,” McIsaac said.

“I hope that we don’t have another situation like this soon. But there could be other times when these things pop up, and there isn’t a lot of research that tells us how to prepare for things like this and how we can support families with young children.”

Dr Jessie-Lee McIsaac. Photo submitted.

McIsaac points to an examination of the existing research about the impact the SARS pandemic had on families with young children. She said it was much more retrospective in scope, as researchers only conducted their work after the pandemic was over.

“So what we’re trying to do is kind of be in the moment and capture those experiences as they’re happening,” she said.

She and her research team decided to pursue this survey in part because it dovetailed with their mandate of trying to better understand how to better support families with young kids. Several of them also have young children at home, and were taking note of the many parents sharing their experiences, both good and bad, via their professional and personal social media feeds.

“We’re seeing lots about families’ days and the struggles that they’re facing, so I think the survey is an opportunity to better understand as a collective how we’re doing in the Maritimes for those of us that have young kids,” McIsaac said.

Researchers hope to learn more about what strategies families are employing as they work from home, in addition to how they navigate challenges like creating routines and finding ways to allow their children to play.

“We know that school is more structured so we’re curious to see what some of the differences are with the different age ranges. Is there more encouragement of play? This is something we want to know,” she said.

McIsaac’s university colleague Christine McLean wrote a piece that appeared in The Conversation Canada last week outlining why allowing children to have time for simple child’s play is vital during this pandemic period. She suggests that such activity allows children to thrive, adding that it’s her hope the lost art of play will be part of our new normal once the pandemic passes.

“We all have memories of playing with our friends, our siblings, our cousins, and with kids we just met and, if we squint back very carefully at the past, we might remember that we were in charge of our own play — not the grown-ups,” McLean wrote.

“Lately, though, and as a function of the world we live in, this type of simple play has been edged out of children’s lives, in some cases replaced with activities like soccer and gymnastics, ballet and baseball, music and swimming lessons. And then there are the screens — so many screens. But now the calendar is empty and there is time to play.”

The researchers want to know about how families are spending more or less time outdoors with park closures and limited access to safe places to play if they don’t have a yard. They’re also asking about access to healthy food, activities families are doing together, and how parents themselves are coping emotionally.

They also want to know about some of the positive unanticipated consequences brought about by more family time during this period McIsaac refers to as a slowing down.

“For those people who are working parents, you don’t get to see your child as often as you are now, so what are some of the benefits of that? What are some of the unanticipated consequences as a result of the closures,” she said.

The survey was launched April 15, and McIsaac said they’ve already received great response from parents in all three Maritime provinces.

“One of the things that we’re seeing so far are just the powerful stories and the unique experiences of families,” she said.

The survey includes many questions asking parents to agree or not to specific questions. But there are also several optional open-ended questions where participants can choose to write about their own experiences in greater details.

“We are really surprised about how many parents are taking the time to tell us about their experiences. I think people are feeling this deeply,” she said. “It is hitting home for a lot of families.”

The survey closes May 4, and McIsaac said they hope to have preliminary results by early June. They’ve applied for additional research funding to explore how families with young children adapt to “a new normal” when the pandemic has subsided.

“What does that look like and how do some of our experiences during this time of adjustment influence that adaptation, this is something we hope to explore,” she said.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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