Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez, of Oxford Brookes University, is leading a study of more than 500 families with pre-school aged children to understand how lockdowns and social distancing affect their development.
Dr. Gonzalez-Gomez said: “What this is showing is that this pandemic is widening the deep inequalities that exist in early experiences and life chances that exist between the disadvantaged children and their peers across the UK, so the gap is getting bigger between them.
“It seems parents of lower socio-economic status have been particularly affected by the lockdown and the social distancing measures.”
Children from less advantaged backgrounds may not have access to the wide range of books and toys that can be used as learning resources, or access to gardens that can be used to do enriching activities.
Dr Gonzalez Gomez explained: “What we are seeing is that parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds, during the lockdown were doing fewer enriching activities with young children, which meant in turn that children from lower socio-economic status performed lower in their executive functions.”
Racheal Lusby Davies 22, from Kent has a 20-month-old son, and has noticed the effects that lack of nursery time and play groups has had on him.
“The majority of his life has been in lockdown, unable to arrange play dates, take him to soft play or swimming, all activities that would have been so beneficial for him to get used to at a young age,” she said.
“I have definitely noticed that my boy has become very attached and seems to have separation anxiety and it isn’t possible to try to wean him out of it with spending periods of time apart because of the lockdown.”
On this point Dr Gonzalez-Gomez emphasised the importance of nurseries staying open through the pandemic, although discussions have suggested closing them due to rising cases of COVID-19 in the UK.
“I think it is key that parents have access to nurseries, and we know that nursery’s promote equal life chances, so they help close the gap between the disadvantaged and the not too disadvantaged, this is especially important now there is no play groups, there is no network support, so parents are really struggling.”
Carmen Kitchin has a 3-year-old daughter who continues to attend nursery through the third lockdown in the Wimborne, Dorset.
“The benefits of nursery are amazing for her social interaction, her learning, being with other people, having friends her age, everything they offer her that I can’t. A third of her life has been in lockdown, and it’s quite scary when you think of it that way. I’m really happy that there’s that normality there.”
Nyree O’Grady 32, from Kent, had her second child during the COVID-19 pandemic and said: “I think babies like Xavier being born in lockdown may be more withdrawn and shy. Although Xavier is a smiley baby, if anyone would say hello, he would become shy and bury his head in my shoulder.
“Xavier hasn’t been to any baby classes or swimming and he is nearly a year old in a few weeks, babies aren’t having their first contacts and older children are being taken away from what contacts they are used to.”
Dr Gonzalez-Gomez said how the BabyLab study has found that not only has it discovered the effect the pandemic has had on children’s cognitive development, but how it has affected the mental health of parents with young children and how this can influence the development of the child.
“What we are also seeing is parental mental health has had a hit because of the lockdown, studies show that parents of pre-school children were among the most affected groups in the population in terms of increases in mental distress during the spring lockdown and we are seeing that in our research, in the November lockdown parents showed higher levels of stress and anxiety and depression, the research shows parental mental health has an effect on children’s development so that will have a knock on affect with cognitive development of the child.”