Indoor activities: The businesses struggling and children left isolated

Many children have not had access to their outlets and hobbies since March 2020

Children have been left isolated and cut off from the things that mattered to them such as dancing, drama, coding, indoor sports, singing, music lessons  – at a time when they needed them most. Photograph: iStock

Children have been left isolated and cut off from the things that mattered to them such as dancing, drama, coding, indoor sports, singing, music lessons – at a time when they needed them most. Photograph: iStock

 

While the return of children’s team sports and outdoor activities was a welcome relief for many parents and children, the continued closure of indoor activities including dancing, drama, coding, indoor sports, singing, music lessons and band practice has meant many children have not had access to their outlets, hobbies and supports since March 2020.

For the businesses involved, this has meant continued uncertainty and a struggle to survive. For children and their parents, skills lost, supports removed, and a lack of access for those who found their tribe in places other than on the sports pitch, are just some of the concerns. Children have been left isolated and cut off from the things that mattered to them – at a time when they needed them most.

Sinead Murphy is the principal of the Cork School of Dance. Her school closed on March 12th, 2020. “The lack of a clear path from Government for our sector is extremely frustrating,” she says. “We received guidance on May 28th [2021]stating we could open on July 5th but this went by the wayside on June 20th. We’ve heard nothing since.”

“We are dance educators. We prepare our students for examinations, for dance auditions to third-level colleges. We prepare teach and guide the next generation of dancers. We have been teaching online since October 2020,” Sinead explains. “I am a highly qualified teacher with years of experience and I now find myself having to almost start my business all over again.

“We nurture our students anyway but this time we will have a mammoth task ahead to rehabilitate their social skills, technical skills and their mental and physical health.”

Ciara Phelan and Paul Cullen.
Ciara Phelan and Paul Cullen.

For Ciara Phelan and Paul Cullen, owners of Arclight Drama school in Dublin, the situation has been very challenging. “Our business has been hugely impacted,” Ciara says. “We have adapted by moving to Zoom,” something she says they had to “learn very quickly”. “In terms of income we are down to about 40 per cent of our previous income,” she continues. “We are surviving by cutting out all luxuries and treats. Arclight is completely a family and community business, so everyone in the family is impacted.”

Skeleton group

Ciara says while older teenagers have been good for engaging with online classes “with younger children we have lost a lot of our students and really only have a skeleton group of the really interested ones coming. We’re really worried that not getting back to in-person classes will lead to a further drop in enrolment for September.”

Ciara says she knows their students “need to be back and seeing each other again. Drama creates really strong bonds in kids and especially teens and provides a really safe and welcoming space for them”.

Across the country, parents are dealing with the fallout of children unable to access their outlets. Jessie Castle says her daughter continued with dance lessons via Zoom but it was not without its challenges. “She did not have mirrors or a proper studio floor and had to try and follow instructions on the screen. She did not have the motivation of being in a group or the enjoyment of being in the company of her friends.

Craig.
Craig.

“She has found the isolation caused by not being able to attend the studio in person hard,” Jessie says. “She sees so many other activities back in force and also GAA matches and other sporting events with large crowds. She feels her activity and the thing she loves is being undervalued and in a way that she is also being undervalued.”

For Sandra Desmond’s 15-year-old son, lack of access to his dance classes has not only meant he missed out on his hobby, but also in taking his dance exams as, Sandra explains “the judges could not travel last year over the lockdowns”.

“Craig lives and breathes for dance,” his mother says, adding that her son intends to pursue a career in dance. “The Government has crucified performing arts. It’s so important for kids to get back for their mental health. The Government is distorting my child’s future.”

Mary’s teenage son has been unable to attend indoor karate training since March 2020. “It’s such a loss to him,” Mary says as “it’s excellent for ADHD kids as it’s a ‘cross the midline’ activity”.

“Dance, drama, indoor sports, etc are more than just a nice thing to do or a bit of a pastime – it’s therapy for neuro-diverse kids and essential for all children’s wellbeing, confidence and development.”

Craig is missing dance.
Craig is missing dance.

Mary says she’s not sure if her son will return to karate now. “Generally we’re preventing young children from developing their motor planning skills . . . with lockdowns, restrictions on schools, less sports, etc, they have missed out on normal developmental milestones. We worry about academics, but this is crucial too.”

Katharine Slattery’s children don’t play teams sports. “For the last three or four years, pre-pandemic, they were part of this group called Stagezone which was singing and dancing and a little bit of acting.”

“It’s a really wonderful environment for them,” she says. “I think it is significant in the life of a child that they haven’t had the opportunity to do something they were good at with people who also shared that interest.”

“Online was nothing like the experience you could get being in a room and being part of a huge chorus of singing and dancing.

Katharine’s son was 11 when his much-loved activity stopped. As a teenager now she fears that if and when it returns he may not go back, “because he’s moved on in his own head”. “I’m so sad for the kids and sad for us as a family, that hasn’t been part of our lives because it was such a happy part of our lives.”

Ciara Reid’s youngest daughter Reiltin has Down syndrome and has recently recovered from cancer. Reiltin loves ballet.

Réiltín.
Réiltín.

When Reiltin started in ballet, at about 4 years old, she wasn’t yet walking. “All the class members had additional needs,” Ciara explains. Reiltin is also deaf and had to learn to follow instructions. “When she did stand, when she had to balance something on her head, it is physio for her as well,” Ciara says.

“It’s very hard when you have a child who needs physio . . . to sit down and do the physio and do the exercises because it’s not fun, it’s a chore,” Ciara explains. For Reiltin, ballet classes were “physio, occupational therapy in a fun setting and there’s music”. Her mum feels it’s very important that indoor activities can return.

Make connections

“Not every child plays sport,” Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist, says and for children who aren’t part of that “normative, they do need somewhere else to express themselves, to make connections, to socialise, to have fun, to learn skills. And what we find is that the alternatives to sport, albeit dance, art, drama, speech and language, these are oftentimes places where children who oftentimes find themselves on the periphery of things will find their tribe”.

“What we are noticing is that the normatives in school is very narrow. It’s unusual that in a time where we’ve never had much more choice, we have very little variation. If you’re not in, you’re out, so all of a sudden these niche places have become way more important than ever before,” Colman explains.

“These children thrive off experiences of people who understand them, who get them. Lots of children who might be bullied or excluded or find it hard to make friends with the large normative or the popular group within school, will often find solace within the indoor activities or the specialised activities.”

Colman says we have to consider “lost learning” when looking at the cost of keeping these activities closed. “Children who learn skills through drama, piano lessons, music lessons, whatever it might be, if they aren’t sustained, they’ll lose the skillset and so when they’re getting back in they feel like they’re starting from scratch again.”

“Obviously indoor risk versus outdoor risk is well established,” Colman says. “However, have we considered the risk to these children outside of the Covid risk – the risk to their wellbeing, their socialisation, their skillsets, their communities? I think we have underestimated the impact of the value of those outlets.

“These experiences feed into their self-esteem, self-worth and self-belief. These are all tokens of that really important stuff that makes them feel enough. If they don’t have that supply, or that value, or that experience, their self-worth, self-belief and self-value, starts to get compromised because they’re being judged on things that they wouldn’t choose to do.”

Colman says children with additional needs have missed out hugely. “It is going to be a significant battle to regain the lost ground that they’ve made because, by their pure trajectory, it takes longer for them to learn and it’s easier for them to lose the skill as well, because it’s not as established. Those are children who are really being disenfranchised by all of this.”

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