In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.
Editor's note: An initial version of this story came out in summer 2020. It has been updated to reflect the latest scientific consensus as of early 2022.
Seeing a smile spread across a child’s face is one of the simplest, purest rewards of caring for children. So it’s understandable if the sight of children covered up in face masks just makes you feel a little uncomfortable.
But what’s the real harm involved here? Is there actually any risk, on a developmental, physical or emotional level? And if there is, does that outweigh the interest of preventing the spread of the coronavirus?
Across online parenting forums and child care groups, these questions have been causing a bit of doubt and discomfort — which is the last thing we need more of right now.
I wanted to get an expert’s input on all this, so I called up Dr. Mike Gaffrey. Mike is the director of Duke University’s Early Experience and the Developing Brain Lab, and an assistant professor at Duke’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. His research focuses on neurological development in the children, and how early life stress and environments affect children later on in life.
We talked about whether there’s any risk with getting children to wear masks, where those concerns come from, and how you can best handle masks at your child care center.
First thing’s first. Do we need to be concerned that wearing masks is going to harm our children, or cause some sort of developmental delays?
When I first spoke with Mike in the summer of 2020, he said, "My initial thoughts are probably not." Two years later, his position hasn't changed.
While the question of child masking pops up often on social media, Mike hasn't heard it discussed in academic circles. He says it seems like something of a non-issue — as he points out, masks only cover half of children’s faces, and nobody’s wearing them all day, every day.
He’s careful to note that he has yet to see any research suggesting that child masking interferes with child development. And to inform our position, we have a deep understanding of how children learn and grow during early childhood. From that base of knowledge, Mike says, he doesn’t find reason to believe that wearing a mask is going to cause any physical or developmental harm to children, even if we carry on with it for a couple months.
Masks are a disruption to children’s normal experience, so it’s natural to worry that that disturbance might have consequences. But at the same time, not everything that’s disruptive about this pandemic needs to come with a dark side.
“I’ve talked to some preschool directors and teachers, and they’ve said the children have adapted wonderfully. They had some worries about masks at the start, but the children are still laughing, still playing with each other, and still learning as always. So we’ve also got to wonder aloud about who is holding these worries,” Mike says.
The bottom line is, masks work. They play a big role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and right now that’s our biggest concern. It’s best we focus on that immediate, real problem, instead of hesitating out of concern over a “what if” problem. While vaccinations and lower community spread help combat COVID, we're not out of the woods yet — which makes masks, for adults and children, still a worthwhile tool to help us dampen the pandemic's disruptions.
To understand where these concerns about children and masks are coming from, Mike and I talked about what causes that emotional reaction to seeing children in masks. Why does it just feel weird for so many of us?
As Mike explains, learning to read facial expressions is a critical part of children’s cognitive and social development. It’s one of the first ways we learn to share emotions, and a big part of navigating our social world. So yes, it’s important that children see each other’s faces, and it’s understandable that it just feels right to us, because it’s instinctual that we value that.
But wearing masks doesn’t really mean that children are cut off from this learning.
“The bottom half of the face certainly offers something important to our emotional expression, but it’s not the only tool we have to communicate that information,” Mike says. “You could think of it as just one piece of the puzzle.”
Our eyes, eyebrows, body language, posture and physical movements are also key ways to express ourselves and understand others, and we can do all that while wearing a mask.
And realistically, children will only be wearing a mask for a few hours in a day, and only on a few days a week. That still leaves plenty of room for them to develop those critical skills of reading emotions, which is just what they’re wired to do.
“Children are resilient, and they’re voracious learners. They take in information all day, and they can learn rapidly from single instances. So even small moments where we can see and read each others’ full faces can teach children a lot, developmentally speaking,” Mike says.
Currently, health authorities recommend that children younger than two years should not wear masks. As Mike explains, there a number of practical considerations that go into this decision:
Of course, these are guidelines, not concrete rules. In situations where an older child lives with speech difficulties or a respiratory disorder, for example, these same parameters may well apply. You know your children best, so you can decide whether these factors are relevant for your situation.
As you help children get used to face masks, it’s worth looking at it in terms of the challenges and opportunities that come with it.
Right at the end of our conversation, Mike pointed out a silver lining of this whole issue — that the masks offer a really good opportunity to teach children about the idea of altruism. Sure, wearing masks might not be something you really want to do. But it’s something we do anyway, for the good of others.
It’s hard to point to another situation where children have had such an immediate and clear example of why we do something for the benefit of others. At your child care setting, you can turn this into a lesson in generosity, in sticking together and looking out for one another.
“Right now, we’ve got an opportunity to teach these ideas of altruism and generosity in a way that’s never been more salient to our culture,” Mike says. “It’s real, and it’s concrete. Children can learn that this is something they can do for the good of others — for their classmates, for their teachers and family, and for their community.”
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.