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How Pandemics Change The Way Kids Play

NICOLE MCNULTY, HOST: Due to the pandemic, New York City kids are spending lots of school time in front of screens. Parents are at their wits’ end, because today’s kids also play online -- with TikTok or YouTube.

KATIE ANASTAS, HOST: As Cat Smith finds, in the past, public health crises also brought kids indoors and altered how they had fun.

CAT SMITH, BYLINE: One hundred years ago, the streets of New York City were crawling with kids. It’s where they spent their free time, transforming whole blocks into their playgrounds.

HOWARD CHUDACOFF: Kids running around, throwing a ball, jumping rope, using and appropriating mailboxes and telephone poles and sewer covers.

SMITH: That’s right, sewer covers. As bases, for baseball. Howard Chudacoff is author of “Children at Play: An American History.” He says, back in 1918, when the flu pandemic arrived, it changed the way people lived, much like Covid has today.

CHUDACOFF: The pandemic of 1918 did force all people indoors more, whether they were quarantined, or whether they were just trying to avoid being exposed to other people who were sick.

SMITH: At that time, improvements in manufacturing and assembly line production ushered in a slew of affordable toys that kept kids busy -- indoors.

CHUDACOFF: Some of the most classic toys that have come down to us over the last 100 years were first marketed in the 1910s. Tinker toys, Erector sets, dolls, tea sets.

SMITH: Raggedy Ann and Lincoln Logs. BUT New York City kids weren’t too isolated in 1918. City schools stayed open, and kids enjoyed time with their friends between classes. But that was the flu. Polio epidemics were a different story.


SMITH: Kids were high-risk for the paralyzing disease. Schools and playgrounds sometimes closed to curb the spread -- but others stayed open. Kids with polio could spend months alone in bed. Which brings us to a famous moment in game history…


SMITH: Legend has it, in 1948 a schoolteacher named Eleanor Abbott was recovering from the disease, and met a lot of sick, lonely kids in the hospital. She hand-drew Candy Land on butcher paper to keep them entertained. But today, between quarantine and online school, that kind of in-person fun is something kids can miss out on. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics students perform better when they get breaks for fun like recess. Lauren McNamara, a psychologist who researches play, says this is a problem.

LAUREN MCNAMARA: A lot of people think play is trivial. And secondary. I hope they’ll come to the realization of the primacy of play and social connection -- that it's right around there with the need for food.

SMITH: McNamara says, it’s not just kids – parents also need more time for fun. Cat Smith, Columbia Radio News.


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