How to Help Your Kids Make Friends During the COVID-19 Pandemic

playdate ideas covid

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our kids in many ways, but perhaps the most profound way is how it has impacted their friendships. Social isolation, mask-wearing, social distancing, and school and childcare closures have meant making friends has taken completely different forms for our kids.

As parents, this dramatic change has likely worried us. We all want our kids to be happy, and we know that childhood is meant to be shared with friends. Socializing is vital for our kids’ well-being. We see how our kids suffer without their friends, and all want to make their childhoods as normal, stress-free, and as happy as possible.

The good news is that the pandemic is not forever. As the world begins to open up again and we inch closer to vaccine availability for kids, our children will soon be able to interact normally with their friends.

Until then, there are many ways that we can help our kids make friends, socialize with the friends that they have, and cope with the many changes the pandemic has brought.

New Rules for Vaccinated People

The CDC's interim recommendations for fully vaccinated people say that people who are more than two weeks beyond their final COVID-19 vaccine dose may resume most normal activities without social distancing or wearing a mask.

However, unvaccinated people must continue to follow safety guidelines to prevent contracting or spreading COVID-19, including wearing masks, social distancing, and limiting contact with people outside of their households. This includes kids under 12, who are yet unable to receive the vaccine.

The Importance of Friendship During Child Development

No one can deny that friendships are important for our children, and we parents don’t need an expert to tell us that socializing with friends has positive impacts.

No one understands what it’s like to be a child as much as another child. There is no one better than another child to engage in free, imaginative play with. And there is no one better to play games with, chat about common interests, and share feelings with than a good friend.

Research compiled by the University of Florida shows that friendships are vital to our kids’ development. For example, kids who don’t form bonds with other children may experience mental health struggles later in life.

Friendships teach important social skills like cooperation, active listening, and problem-solving skills. Friendships may even help children succeed in academic environments.

Of course, friendships aren’t always sunshine and rainbows. Children who face bullying, ridicule, or emotionally or physically unsafe environments resulting from peer interactions do suffer. But these situations are the exception rather than the rule, and allowing our children to explore different kinds of friendships as freely as possible during childhood is important for their development.

The Challenges of Making Friends During the Pandemic

As schools, daycares, and camps begin to reopen, children have more opportunities to connect with their friends. Even so, some children are planning to return to school virtually. And those who do attend in-person may not be able to socialize in the way they used to, as mask-wearing and social distancing change the dynamic significantly.

This means that children need to continue to find new ways to socialize—and while kids are more adaptive than we might expect, these new circumstances haven’t been without challenges.

This is especially true for kids who may be new to a particular location and making friends for the first time or kids who already experience social anxiety. Children who have special needs and very young children may find the new ways of connecting to other children particularly hard to navigate.

That said, there are options out there for our children—even the littlest and most frustrated ones—to connect to their peers and even make brand new friends. And thanks to the miracles of modern technology, it’s actually easier than you might expect to find socializing opportunities for our children. All it takes is a little ingenuity and pre-planning.

COVID Safety Measures to Keep in Mind

Perhaps the most surprising and positive thing to come out of the pandemic is the “out of the box” ideas that parents and kids have come up with to socialize safely.

Many people hadn’t even heard of Zoom (or other video conferencing platforms) until March 2020, and since then, they have become experts. Parents have also come up with creative ways to gather in public safely.

It’s important to remember that any time unvaccinated people gather in person with someone outside their households, they potentially risk COVID-19 infection. Unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks, stay six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently.

As the CDC explains, the safest kinds of gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic are those that are outside, with members of your household or a small group of fully vaccinated friends and family. Small, outdoor gatherings with a mixed group of vaccinated and unvaccinated people are also considered safe if unvaccinated people are masked.

Small, uncrowded indoor activities, like visiting a store or another person's home, are less safe, even when an unvaccinated person is masked. And the least safe activities for unvaccinated people are crowded venues like movie theaters, restaurants, and concerts.

In addition, even as infections decline, it's still a good idea to keep an eye on your local COVID-19 infection rate before gathering. In places with high infection rates, in-person gatherings are less safe.

Ideas for Making Friends

Keeping in mind the safety parameters—virtual gathering being the safest option and outside with masks/distancing being the second safest option—here are a few ideas to get you started to create opportunities for your children to socialize and make friends.

Virtual Playdates

It can take a little getting used to for your child—and younger children will likely need a parent nearby to help them—but virtual playdates can be a lot of fun.

Some children are happy to chat with their friends via video chat. But other children find it easier to participate in an activity. Keep it simple: set out some paper and crayons for your child to color with their friend. Help your child move the camera around so that they can show off their toys or even play a game of hide-and-seek.

In many cases, your child and their friend will come up with the best ideas to make this work: they will probably surprise you with their creativity.

Video Activity Dates

For some children, a more organized activity—often with parenting assistance—makes video chatting more comfortable and enjoyable. Activities like crafting or cooking lend themselves well to video chatting platforms. This takes some preparation.

You will need to decide on an activity and get instructions and supplies ready for all participants. Older children can probably do the activity with less assistance, but younger children will need your help. 

Live Movie Streaming

Many video platforms, including Netflix, allow you to stream videos with others and live chat about what you are watching.

You can also do screen sharing on Zoom: One party logs into a movie streaming service and then uses the screen sharing option to live stream the video. Pop up the popcorn and enjoy the flick with a bestie.

Live Gaming

Video games get a bad rap. While they definitely can be addictive for kids, and some of their content is concerning at times, they are a wonderful way for kids to socialize and have been a lifeline for tweens and teens during the pandemic.

Many games allow for live playing, and kids can use audio to connect that way while they play.

Of course, it’s important to make sure your children only connect with their friends and not strangers. You also want to make sure the content of the video games is appropriate for children.

An Outside Socially Distanced Scavenger Hunt or Other Organized Activity

Playing outside is a great lower-risk way for children to connect with their friends during the pandemic. However, to keep things on the safer side, mask-wearing and social distancing need to be observed.

That’s why choosing an organized activity, such as a scavenger hunt, exercise or dance activity, or any other childhood favorite, is a good idea. This way, you can monitor your children and make sure they keep their distance and make safe choices while they play.

Good, Old-Fashioned Pen Pals

A more introverted child might decide that letter writing is the way to go. Sending physical mail to one’s friends can be a lot of fun and may feel like a novel, exciting activity.

Your child can also send arts and crafts or homemade care packages through the mail. Other kids will enjoy emailing their friends or learning to text (if they don’t already).

For kids looking to make new friends, having a pen pal is a nice way to dip their toes in and get to know a new person.

Online Enrichment Classes

Online platforms such as Outschool offer opportunities for children to take classes that align with their personal interests. These types of classes are also fantastic opportunities for your child to make new friends because they are likely to encounter children who have similar hobbies and sensibilities.

Some platforms offer classes that don’t focus on a specific interest necessarily but on more fun, open-ended socializing opportunities.

Nature Walks and Bike Riding

Another low-risk outside activity is going on a nature walk and/or riding bikes with a friend. These activities allow for social distancing and can be a lot of fun. Depending on your child’s age, adult supervision is likely necessary. Either way, you will want to be sure all parties agree on COVID-19 safety measures before getting together.

Family Game Nights

Don’t forget about extended family. Connecting with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents is also important for kids. Again, organized activities such as game night work best here. You can screen share with family members as you play an online video game or other game.

Even board games such as Monopoly and Scrabble have come out with online versions that can be played in groups.

If Your Child Is Lonely or Depressed

Some children have found these alternative ways of connecting with their friends easier than others. For children who are very young, new to a particular area, have special needs, or experience social anxiety, video chatting may not feel easy or enjoyable. Don’t pressure your child to do something that they don’t feel comfortable doing.

Keep in mind that some children are fine with simply playing with siblings, playing with parents, or playing alone. Again, the pandemic isn’t forever, and if your child is coping fine without frequent social interactions, that’s okay too. They will learn to adapt when it’s safe to socialize normally again.

However, if your child is very lonely or exhibiting signs of depression resulting from social isolation, it’s vital to take this seriously and speak to your child’s pediatrician, school counselor, or child therapist. Simply having an open, non-judgmental conversation with your child about their feelings, worries, and fears can be helpful too.

A few days of grumpiness or acting out is normal. But if your child is showing sustained signs of disturbance or is having trouble functioning on a day-to-day basis, that’s when you should strongly consider getting professional help for your child’s mental health. Some signs of anxiety that might warrant further attention include:

  • Phobias
  • Fear of certain places where there are other people (social anxiety)
  • Fear about the future or of bad things happening
  • Separation anxiety
  • Rapid breathing or heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness

Signs of depression that parents should be aware of include:

  • Sadness, hopelessness, irritability
  • Withdrawing from socializing within the family or among friends
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Extreme changes in eating patterns
  • Problem concentrating
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Engaging in self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation

If your child has suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

A Word From Verywell

We live in unprecedented times, and, naturally, we are worried about our children’s ability to make friends and sustain their friendships.

We parents should do whatever we can to facilitate continued social connections for our children. Still, we should also remember that most children have adapted remarkably to the circumstances and have found ways to socialize in new and satisfying ways.

So, unless our children are exhibiting signs of mental health struggles or other challenges, we can probably relax a little and have faith that our children will come out of this experience unscathed, and perhaps with a newfound appreciation for their beloved friends.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Help Stop the Spread of COVID-19 in Children.

  3. Ferrer M, Fugate A. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The Importance of Friendship for School-Age Children.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Choosing safer activities.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anxiety and depression in children.

Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.