If you’re a parent, it might not feel like summer if your evenings aren’t spent watching Little League games and shuttling kids to dance or swim lessons.
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Yet the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined many of those summer routines and left others in limbo as we grapple with which activities are actually safe to do right now.
As some communities start up youth sports again, how can you decide whether it’s safe for your children to play?
“I would encourage kids to become active again, but with the caveat of being safe and minimizing risks as much as possible,” says pediatrician W. Kyle Mudd, MD. “The virus is still very much present in the community, so we can’t let our guard down.”
Here are some things to consider as you weigh the potential risks and benefits for your child.
The many plus sides of kids’ sports
The companionship and social interaction that sports provide are crucial to children’s development, Dr. Mudd says. And physical exercise has positive effects on children’s physical and mental health.
Plus, children thrive in the type of structure and routine that organized sports create. So, while canceling youth sports during the first few months of the pandemic was “absolutely necessary” to slow the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Mudd notes, it was not without any negative consequences for kids.
Research shows that children tend to be more sedentary, eat less nutritious foods and have more irregular sleep patterns over weekends and prolonged breaks.
“These same effects are being seen because of COVID-19 restrictions and stay-at-home orders,” he explains. “They may even be made worse by the lack of social interaction due to school closures and sports cancellations.”
In a survey of more than 1,700 children who had been restricted to their homes in China, as many as one in five of them reported symptoms of depression or anxiety.
“As we reopen our communities, it’s important to allow participation in athletics and play, as long as risks can be calculated and minimized when possible, and group activities are allowed per CDC recommendations,” Dr. Mudd says.
Weighing risks vs. benefits
According to the CDC, the safest way for kids to get back to sports this summer is for them to do skill-building exercises or conditioning at home.
Adding other players to the equation adds some amount of risk that the virus could spread between players. When you’re evaluating whether your child should participate in a team activity, carefully consider these factors:
- How many people you child is going to interact with.
- How closely they are interacting with others, and how long those close interactions last.
- How much equipment they’re sharing with others.
- How well they’re able to social distance from others when they aren’t actively playing.
- Whether they’re playing inside or outside.
Sports with more frequent and prolonged contact between players, such as football, wrestling or basketball, would be considered high risk. Those that involve less or no close contact, such as baseball or tennis, would be lower risk.
“Sports and activities can also be considered safer if they occur outdoors, and even more so if athletes are able to wear a mask,” Dr. Mudd adds.
It’s a personal decision
It’s not just the nature of the sport or activity itself that should be considered. It’s also the personal situation of your child and your family.
These factors should also play into your decision:
- Individual risk: Does your child have asthma or another condition that puts them at higher risk for getting seriously ill if they were to get COVID-19?
- Others within the household: Is someone in your household over the age of 65 or at increased risk for COVID-19 because of an existing medical condition?
- Age: Older kids are likely better able to follow instructions around avoiding close contact with others, mask wearing and hand-washing.
Take steps to ensure safety
If you do decide to let your child participate in sports this summer, there are some modifications that can be made to cut down on some of the risk.
Your child’s coaches should have some or all of these practices in place, but you can reiterate to your child that he or she should:
- Skip the high-fives and handshakes. Encourage your child to cheer for others verbally instead, Dr. Mudd suggests.
- Not spit near others, and practice good cough etiquette. Teach your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow or sleeve, rather than their hands.
- Wear cloth face coverings if possible. If it’s not feasible for them to wear a face covering when they’re playing, they can still wear one while they’re sitting on the bench waiting to play.
- Ease back into it. If your child hasn’t been as active lately, don’t rush them back into a rigorous practice or play schedule. “Similar to how runners train for a marathon, children should gradually work up to competing in their sport,” Dr. Mudd says.
There’s no playbook for how to navigate everyday life during a pandemic, so it’s up to you to make the best decision for your child’s and family’s health and well-being. Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to talk about any concerns with your child’s coach or healthcare provider.