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Brianna Bell is a writer based in Guelph, Ont.

I recently enrolled my two eldest daughters in swimming lessons, after a nearly two-year pandemic-related hiatus. Their lessons are held in a state-of-the art recreation centre in Guelph, Ont. After school one day, I brought my youngest daughter, who is 4, to watch her sisters from the viewing deck. While we walked through the echoey hallway, the smell of chlorine burning our nostrils, I peered down at my wide-eyed kindergartener and wondered what she was thinking.

“What is this place, mommy?” she asked. “Is it a mall?”

Many families have sweet folklore about young children encountering something new and offering up an entertaining or humorous response. It hits a little different when the child has lived the majority of their life in a worldwide pandemic.

When the world shut down during the first wave of COVID-19, my daughter was only two years old. Every one of her memories is influenced by the pandemic. For my daughter and other Generation COVID kids, the cycle of lockdowns, mask-covered faces and avoiding touching and hugging others are completely normal. Some of these children, such as my own, attended daycare in sterile settings where kids ate at separate tables, singing was not allowed, and tape on the carpet separated them from their friends. How will these kids interact in a future that doesn’t require such strict public health measures?

A 2021 longitudinal observational study on child development reveals what many new parents already know: Children born during the pandemic have experienced a significant impact on their verbal, motor and overall cognitive performance when compared with children born before. A qualitative study in BMJ Open found that preschool-aged children’s eating routines, sleep habits and physical activity levels were all negatively affected during COVID-19 lockdowns.

And there’s more. “We’re talking about a developmental delay in public socialization,” says Rebecca Pillai Riddell, a registered clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at York University.

After my husband and I were double vaccinated, we took our three children to Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls. At the time, a trip to the local water-park felt like a safe option, with its strict adherence to provincial health mandates and additional measures added. While my older kids remember our earlier trips to the lodge, my youngest was awestruck by the animatronic moose in the lobby and the whirling colourful slides. It was bittersweet, to think of the years she missed out, and to see the look on her face the moment her feet hit the water.

Of course, not all young children will happily run into a crowded water park filled with overwhelming sensory stimuli – particularly if they’ve spent many of their formative years away from large groups. “What we’re exposed to we get used to,” Dr. Pillai Riddell says. It’s important to gently introduce children to new experiences, she adds, and stay tuned to the individual child’s needs: (If gradual exposures continue to cause stress and alarm, she recommends seeking professional help.)

It’s been nearly two years since we faced those early and uncertain days of the pandemic, but we’re still very much in it, partly because of the highly contagious Omicron variant and also inequality in global vaccination rates. It’s hard to look forward at any age when the future is so uncertain – but it can be a teachable moment.

“This is an opportunity to build resilience and flexibility in our children,” Dr. Pillai Riddell says.

My daughter’s limited exposure to the outside world has meant that she’s accustomed to a life surrounded by her immediate family, and nothing much else. She clings to me as if I’m a safety raft. To be with her mother is to be protected; to be in the world is unfamiliar and unusual. My job is to show her that a life outside our bubble exists – and to teach her that one day she can fly free, without me. For children who grew up in a world that was shut down for so much of their childhood, it just might take a little while to find their footing.

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