ATLANTA — "The most important thing for children is to play with them," Jessie Willis explained as she rolled race cars and built Mr. Potato Head with one of her young clients. "Play is how a child learns."
Experts like Willis, a speech language pathologist, are sharing their concerns that important time for play and socialization is getting lost during the pandemic, and that can impact little ones during critical years of development.
"We have seen an increase in speech and language delays since COVID hit, and it's a very complicated issue," Willis said. "Before the pandemic, parents were going to their well checks. They were going to daycares. They were socializing with other families. And then when everything shut down, well check visits were delayed which means early intervention services were delayed. Families stopped socializing and daycares shut down.
"One of the things we ask our families in an evaluation is how does your child play with other children? A lot of times parents are telling us their child doesn't have any friends and doesn't get to play with other children," she said.
Willis said the lack of socialization, coupled with increased screen time reported during the pandemic, has led to the increase in referrals that Easter Seals North Georgia has been tracking since spring 2021.
"A lot of it could be language delays, and some of it's social interaction delays that we're seeing now," Laura Moncada, Director of Early Intervention Program at Easter Seals North Georgia, explained.
The team said they're seeing cases across all ages, but the majority are for children born before or during the pandemic.
"Sometimes when we get started with families they say, 'I knew something was up. I knew something was going on,'" Moncada added.
But while it's tempting for parents to take a "wait and see" approach, experts encourage early intervention at the first sign of a delay.
Parents like Lauren Aguilar, whose daughter received telehealth support with eating and talking, reinforce that programs like "Babies Can't Wait" can help.
"They are providing early intervention and therapy to kids at such a crucial time for development when their brains are so malleable and receptive to those interventions and therapies," she explained.
Parents can also facilitate language development at home, Willis said, through play and talking through routine tasks.
"Sitting on the floor, talking to your child, playing with them and also going through daily activities like washing the dishes or taking a bath, those are excellent times to foster language," she said.
"You don't realize what a child is learning by just everyday activities," Moncada added. "Just when you go grocery shopping, talk about the vegetables and fruits and colors and smells."
All children in the state of Georgia, regardless of income, may receive a free child health screening to determine eligibility for Babies Can’t Wait services. Program eligibility is based on many factors, including:
- Aged newborn to three years old
- Significant developmental delays, such as failure to turn over, crawl, walk, talk and more
- Diagnosed medical conditions, including Down Syndrome, spina bifidia, cerebral palsy, blindness, seizures, Autism and more
The Georgia Department of Public Health is also available to connect families to resources through 888-HLP-GROW. Families can be linked to more than 4,000 programs and services available across the state that support optimal health such as developmental and early intervention resources and screening.