Experts say young children need to interact in-person with others for growth and development

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unknown number of families to forgo daycare or preschool, often out of fear of putting their children in a community setting.

Some early childhood development experts say they are concerned about the toll this may take on some of the youngest Californians.

At Our Future Tots Learning Center in San Leandro, children as young as two learn how to take turns, share and contribute to a group activity. 

The director says the preschool and child care center closed for three months last year at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Director Victoria Torrez says the children who came back were all smiles. "I opened that door to take their temperatures, and they were all 'bye mom, bye mom'." 

Not everyone returned, and now Torrez is concerned about the children who aren't getting time with their peers. She has some new students who've been at home for the past year and a half. 

"Their experiences were so limited with the outside world that it was a bit frightening for them," says Torrez, of the new students' beginning days at Our Future Tots.

The Education Trust - West, a group that advocates for California students, surveyed parents and found, earlier this year, nearly three-quarters (73%) said they worry about their child’s ability to socialize with other children... and about the same number (74%) said they're worried their child’s education and development will suffer.

Torrez warns of the "unintended consequences" of keeping children away from their peers: saying that kind of interaction helps children grow and develop. 

In addition to social and emotional learning, a daycare or preschool can let the adults in a child's life learn if she or he needs some help when it comes to developmental growth. "We may detect some language delays," says Torrez, "even a child not being able to see, needing glasses, or hearing aids," Torrez said.

Pediatricians, too, are urging parents to find safe ways for their toddlers to be around other children. 

Dr. Neel Patel is a pediatrician with Sutter Health in San Carlos. He says interaction with other children "allows a child to have more complex interaction and really develop their speech... and it allows them to learn how to use that speech." 

Patel says he often talks to parents who are worried that the pandemic is delaying their child's development. He says he's seen some of his youngest patients only from behind a mask, and takes great heart in their reaction to his cues. 

"Six months is about the time babies are smiling, not just reflexively," said Patel, "and even though I am smiling behind the mask, they smile back." 

Patel says interaction with others is "key," and that masks don't obscure emotions. He says he is hopeful that very young children will be able to make up for a relatively "solitary" start in life, due to the pandemic. 

"Children are pure and innocent and definitely resilient," says Patel. He adds even one day a week in a daycare setting or weekly playdates at the park can help children "bloom" socially and emotionally a lot faster, than most parents anticipate.