The kid next door: Neighborhood friendships on a comeback amid the coronavirus pandemic

Lexus Larson, age 8, draws with sidewalk chalk outside her house while her friends, Maliah, 10, and Makinley Walsh, 7, play in their own yard across the street on Monday, April 6, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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(CNN)As the weather has warmed in my Midwestern town, my neighborhood is full of children on bicycles pretending to be riding through the Wild West. I can't walk down the sidewalk without stepping on chalk drawings or hopscotch boards. There are children jumping rope and playing ball. In the eight years I've lived here, I've never witnessed this before. As a clinical psychologist who studies children's friendships, I am fascinated by this development.

Children's social worlds have been upended by the suspension of school and extracurricular activities due to the pandemic. Many older children and adolescents have been able to maintain their friendships over social media. But, for younger children, this approach is less likely to be available to them and less likely to meet their social needs. In some places, a silver lining of Covid-19 may well be the resurgence of childhood friendships in American neighborhoods.

    Shifting locations for play

      Over the last 30 years, children's friendships have been largely forged in the classroom and during extracurricular activities. That's because, on average, children spend 6.5 hours a day in school, and 57% of children spend every day or most days involved in extracurricular activities. These settings provide not only an environment for learning, but also opportunities to make friends, learn about what is expected social behavior and build skills for social relationships.
      A group of children play street hockey outside of homes on Medford Street in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston on Nov. 19, 1971.
      But in the not-too-distant past, children's friendships were formed and maintained within the American neighborhood. Friends on average lived less than a quarter-mile apart and were predominantly from the same neighborhood. Children who lived close to one another were found to have high-quality friendships that were more frequent, emotionally intimate and longer-lasting than those that did not.
      Research shows neighborhood-based play may have distinct advantages, as it is often characterized by mixed-age peer groups. Having groups of friends with both older and younger playmates may uniquely support children's development by allowing them to both learn skills from those that are older, while also serving as role models and mentors for children who are younger.