Wearing a non-medical face mask is becoming a new normal in schools, public places, and workplaces, including childcare centres. It’s a practical recommended precaution to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but there are some potential downsides for early childhood educators and others who work with young children.
For children under six, masks can make it much more difficult to read caregivers’ facial expressions. This can be stressful for kids—even scary.
How to help young kids feel at ease with masks
Infants are drawn to faces from birth. From the time they are two months old, babies actively watch caregivers’ faces to learn social cues. This is how children learn how to tell what other people are feeling. They learn a pleasant and happy tone of voice goes with a smiling face, while an angry tone of voice usually comes with a frown.
When part of the adults’ face is covered, children have fewer “social cues” to tell others’ feelings. That means caregivers have to work a little harder to help kids “read” how others are feeling.
Tips and activities for educators
Adjusting to seeing face masks will come more easily to some children than others. Parents and caregivers can help make it easier by spending a little extra time to help children to become familiar with masks, and help identify ways to tell how other people feel even if you can’t see their mouths.
Active play can be an especially powerful tool to illustrate how people move when they are sad, angry, happy, excited, or sleepy. Here are a few ideas you can try:
How to help babies get used to masked faces
Distraction works well for fussy babies, whether they are crying over morning drop-off or face masks.
An experienced early childhood educator shared her recent experience of a baby crying as soon as she saw the educator wearing a mask at the entrance. To comfort the baby, the educator took out a hand puppet, Mr. Bear, and put a small mask on him. She made funny movements with the puppet, and the baby was totally drawn to it. By the time the puppet show was over, the baby had calmed down.
The magic here is to redirect babies’ attention to something soothing and familiar, such as nursery rhymes or stuffed animals, until they become accustomed to seeing masked faces.
Playful ways to introduce masks to toddlers and preschoolers
Help toddlers and preschoolers learn the words to understand and express their own and others’ feelings. Educators can boost children’s learning experience by doing these simple and fun activities:
Explain the reason that you wear a mask: This is an obvious but important step. Explain why you’re wearing the mask, and assure them you are smiling even though your mouth is covered. The free e-book Seeing Other People Wearing Masks is specifically developed to reassure children that masks are just something people wear like glasses and hats.
Add some fun to masks: Children love cartoon characters and superheroes. Adding some superhero designs could help children make positive connections with masks. Explain that your mask is part of your superhero uniform. You can also show this video to children: We Wear Masks – A Social Story.
Be more explicit about your reactions: Educators can be role models of healthy emotional expression by labeling their own feelings. Dr. Tru Kwong from Mount Royal University suggests that educators be more explicit about their reactions when wearing masks, especially if they usually smile a lot. Pretend you are talking to children through a telephone and describe your feelings out loud. For example, you could say, “I feel so proud of you, because I see you are helping others,” or “I’m excited to go play outside today.”
Play “Guess Who”: Collect pictures of the centre’s educators wearing face masks. Ask children to guess which teacher is behind which mask by looking at the pictures. This game can be emailed to parents so that parents will have fun guessing with their children. Preparing children with this activity could reduce their anxiety when they see teachers wearing masks when they return to school or daycare.
Play “Guess My Feelings”: Cover your mouth with a face mask and ask children to watch your eyes, eyebrows, and body language. Ask children to guess how you’re feeling by observing your upper face and gestures. Take off your mask and reveal your face at the end of each game.
Paper Plate Emotions mask game: Cut paper plates in half. Ask children to draw the nose and mouth of a certain facial expression on one side, and write the related emotion on the back. Help young children with the spelling, and allow them to be as creative as they can, even drawing super silly or extremely angry masks. Attach a popsicle stick to the back of the mask with tape. Get the camera and mirrors ready so they can see themselves “wearing masks” and practice matching their tone of voice with the feelings on the plate.
More activities that facilitate emotional development
Caregivers can help children feel more confident about identifying the emotions of others who are wearing masks by playing guessing games and making a point of talking about feelings more often. Here are a few ideas.
The Feeling Dice game: Click on the template to download it, then print, cut, fold, and glue it into a cube. Ask children to throw the dice and act out the feeling with their face, voice, and body. To extend this activity, ask children questions such as “What makes you feel that way?”
Playing photographer: Take pictures of children and ask them to make an“angry face,” “happy smile,” or “sad face.” Print out the pictures and make a “feelings album” or a “feeling wall.” Children are drawn to pictures of themselves and their friends. Having these visual cues is beneficial for increasing their feeling-related vocabulary.
Label feelings when reading storybooks: When you’re reading storybooks to children, ask them to identify how the characters are feeling. Ask open-ended questions such as “Why do you think Bear is sad?” or “What makes Bunny so angry?” The storybook Does A Seal Smile? talks about how humans and animals communicate via facial expressions and body language. Another storybook, My Friend Is Sad, is about how it feels to be sad and how to find joy if you’re feeling this way.
For both caregivers and children, wearing a mask on a regular basis can be a big adjustment. Yet children are resilient. With a little help from the loving adults around them, kids can learn to accept this new normal.