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Helping Children Learn, Despite a Stolen Year

Brand initiatives have the power to help shape the next generation.

Ioan Ifrim is an associate program director at Long Dash. He has led partnerships with multi-national firms as well as the federal government.

One sunny spring afternoon, I biked to my son’s daycare, loaded him in his seat on the back, and took a short ride back to our house. We didn’t know it then, but that was the last time he’d be in daycare. For the past five-plus months, my two-year old son has spent practically every hour of every day at home with my wife and me.

He has not seen his daycare teachers or the other children in his class in person. He has not been to the library’s story time. He has not played with neighborhood kids at the playground down the street. He has not touched or been close to another human being besides his immediate family. These are challenges that are, sadly, increasingly familiar to many families around the world.

Our son—like many children during the pandemic—has made admirable adjustments, all things considered: getting used to new routines of cycling through the same books and toys, weekly video calls with daycare, and long walks in the neighborhood. But I often wonder: Does he notice that there was a sudden and drastic change? This time off from school—or, to be precise, a traditionally structured education—has inevitably led to children having more free time to play, read, or otherwise think about what is happening in the world around them. The unique circumstances that children are experiencing now have the potential to open new pathways for them later in life, even as they are still processing their daily routines through creative play. 

In a world where empathy, trust, kindness, and ethical behavior are increasingly expected from our institutions, the amount of touchpoints they have with families that are staying-at-home can play a major role in bridging this education gap. Children, especially young ones, are feeling a sense of anxiety and have few creative outlets left available to them to process the changing world around them. Brands—and not merely the traditional definition of such—can offer a reliable source of new experiences, help foster outlets for creativity, develop new communities, and potentially influence their pathways into adulthood.

Maintaining the joy of creativity

For children, there’s something new to experience every day. It’s not surprising, then, that most brands have attempted to provide young people (and their families) with experiences to replicate that sense of wonderment—even when they can’t leave the house. As you’d expect, many brands with identities strongly rooted in imagination have leaned in to finding ways to stay true to their identity during the pandemic. Who among us—child or not—wouldn’t want to toss on a towel cape, grab your toilet paper binoculars, and battle Doug the Egg Carton Dragon?

Yes, it makes sense for brands like Disney or Mattel to do this. After all, they’re selling products to both children and parents, and the throughline between clever brand initiatives and the bottom line is fairly straight. But brand is about more than dollars and cents—it is about building meaningful relationships that endure. If you have a printer, paper, and scissors at home, Canon will help you set up a simple pretend ice cream shop or build a highly detailed space shuttle.

When a company best known for selling bananas launches an arts and crafts website or one of the largest cultural institutions in the world teaches kids how to make their own masks, they’re not just selling a game or a movie or a doll—they’re establishing a brand relationship with both parents and children that extends well beyond commerce.

Building a sense of community, virtually

During any period of great change, we seek comfort in familiar routines. But the isolated monotony of quarantine life places a unique strain on our mental health. Gone are the nights out with friends, the dinner-and-a-show dates, or the small indoor get-togethers around board games. However, as adults with fully formed tastes and skills, new pursuits can be easy to surface. Finally, there’s time to plant that vegetable garden, plow through that stack of novels on your desk, or hone those culinary skills.

But for children (and time-strapped parents), the anxiety of a pandemic isn’t just as easy as experimenting with some shortbread starter or starting that DIY home improvement project. Kids (mostly) have yet to figure out their hobbies—let alone ones they can initiate on their own—and layering that uncertainty on top of the restriction of staying at home can be truly overwhelming. In an effort to help release this anxiety, many brands are leaning in to assist parents and kids find pathways to productive outlets. Sesame Street—a brand built on neighborly connection and friendship—has found new ways to foster connection: within our own homes and families through shared activities that parents can do with their children, like sharing in the joy of cooking.

Other brands take the approach of letting our most trusted traditions do the heavy lifting. Publishers like Scholastic started #OperationStorytime, in which authors and celebrities read their favorite books over social media. (The kids may tire of your version of The Giving Tree, but maybe they’re more interested in Olaf from Frozen’s take instead?) These sorts of initiatives not only help kids learn and grow, but it allows them to develop new hobbies that hopefully can carry on beyond the era of social distancing.

Processing through play

Some children identify life-long passions through their play or the books they read, resulting in successful careers in fields associated with those passions. One outlet for processing the world and gaining control over the narrative is through play, such as playing doctor with siblings or dolls. “Play is a way that children can start to understand reality—by engaging in ‘consequence free’ situations,” explains Dr. Thalia Goldstein in Psychology Today. “Pretending to go to the hospital is a very different, but related, experience to actually going to the hospital.”

Brands can step into this space by helping parents educate their children about staying healthy with toys that encourage constructive play and information from trusted sources that parents recognize. A plastic medical kit toy might be enhanced with more information from a pharmaceutical company about the proper way to wash hands. A doctor dress-up kit might be accompanied by a real mask the child could practice wearing inside the home before they can accompany their parents on errands outside the home. As children continue to play in these fields, it might spark a very real interest in careers.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes

Today’s storytellers have a higher barrier to entry into children’s attention spans, which is why they must work harder to reach them on their level. As the trust of brands has continued to grow during this pandemic, organizations find themselves in the unique position of directly helping to inform anxious parents and curious children’s decisions about play and their future. 

Some brands already know how to engage with children on this more personal level. LEGO’s #ExplainedWithLEGO series of videos has created a number of online videos that provide basic information about a wide range of subjects like the seasons, animals, and flight. Playmobil cut straight to the chase and created a video explaining the coronavirus and the lockdown to their audience. Will our children grow up to be epidemiologists, virologists, or some other, new profession? These interactions with brands could play a role in sparking their interest in this frontline work that helps keep us safe, healthy, and protected.

For many, the transition from “pre-pandemic life” to our current day-to-day was sudden. There’s a feeling that some part of our children’s futures were stolen with that sudden change. It’s unclear if there will ever be a single day to point to as the start of their “post-pandemic life.” But what is clear is what children are missing in the meantime: not just “education,” or daycare, or formal instruction from trained professionals. At their core, they’re missing a framework to develop themselves as individuals and the opportunity to independently build the foundations of their future selves. In the absence of public institutions filling that role, brands have an opportunity to step in and re-create that framework through their interactions with parents and children—to help them grow, return some control over their sense of self, and, in the process, help them be optimistic about their future.

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