Can I go out and play? After six weeks, Spain tells kids, ‘Sí.’

Courtesy of Elena Parreño
Maya Herrero plays on the street in Barcelona on her first official day outside since Spain's lockdown restrictions on children were lifted on Sunday, April 26.

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On Sunday, Spain’s children got to do something they haven't been able to do for six weeks: Go outside.

The lifting of some of the most onerous restrictions in Europe not only provided kids with fresh air, but a much-needed break from the monotony of life indoors. Most families have coped by doing schoolwork, activity circuits, or increasing screen time.

Why We Wrote This

Fresh air and freedom – both sound alluring as coronavirus lockdowns continue around the world. On Sunday, Spain’s children got their first taste of both.

The desire to protect the small in the hard-hit country was understandable, parents say, but children are less likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than seniors. Denying them fresh air felt punitive, especially in cities where small apartments without balconies are the norm.

Elena Parreño says her 7-year-old daughter Maya has been waking up with nightmares since the lockdown began.  

On Sunday, Ms. Parreño took Maya out to Rollerblade along the mostly empty streets of Barcelona.

“It was awesome!” says Ms. Parreño. “She skated for an hour. We never stopped moving. On her way home, she was actually tired … and went to bed before 11 p.m. for the first time since the lockdown started.”

The last time 8-year-old Cecilia Pagliotta played outside, it was still blustery winter in León.

But on Sunday, the trees lining the streets were full of green leaves; flowers blossomed. Children spilled across the riverbank of this northern Spanish town, some with bikes, others with Rollerblades.

“It’s the city of children!” Cecilia exclaimed to her father, Marcel, who took her out for a walk along the riverbank, greeting friends – at a distance – along the way.

Why We Wrote This

Fresh air and freedom – both sound alluring as coronavirus lockdowns continue around the world. On Sunday, Spain’s children got their first taste of both.

Cecilia, like the rest of Spain’s children, finally went outside on Sunday for the first time in 43 days. Since March 14, kids have been shuttered indoors, subject to the most restrictive coronavirus lockdown measures in Europe. Next to Italy, Spain has been the hardest-hit by the coronavirus in Europe, with more than 23,500 people having died so far.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The desire to protect the small and vulnerable would be understandable, parents say, but children are less likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than seniors. Denying them fresh air and an outlet for pent-up energy felt unnecessarily punitive, especially in cities where small apartments without balconies are the norm. Confusion over who qualified as a “child” also didn’t help, with cooped-up 15- to 17-year-olds suddenly hearing last week from the government that they could have been outside, at least to run errands, all along.

But despite the monotony and mounting outrage, the six-week confinement may not have the long-term consequences that many parents fear.

“Children are generally more resilient and flexible than adults,” says Catherine L’Ecuyer, a researcher in childhood development based in Barcelona. The exception would be households that are already struggling, either financially or emotionally. “Children are more at risk if they belong to households where the parents are depressed or anxious. Children tend to use their principle caregiver as a basis for exploration and to reproduce the mental state of adults.”

And while normalcy still feels light years away, Spanish families say they will continue to draw on patience and creativity as they adjust to their new normal.

“For sure, my kids are feeling that something is wrong … they have their own fears and worries,” says Marcel Pagliotta, father to Cecilia and her 13-year-old brother Aldo. “We’ve tried to explain the situation since the beginning. We should learn as much as possible from all of this.”

For parents of young children, the ability to go out and play spells immeasurable relief. For the past six weeks, they’ve had to entertain and educate their children, as well as manage the psychological repercussions of lockdown. Elena Parreño says that her 7-year-old daughter Maya has been waking up with nightmares.  

On Sunday, Ms. Parreño took Maya out to Rollerblade along the mostly empty streets and visited her nearby school.

“It was awesome!” says Ms. Parreño. “She skated for an hour. We never stopped moving. On her way home, she was actually tired … and went to bed before 11 p.m. for the first time since the lockdown started.”

The new measures have not only provided kids with fresh air, but a much-needed break from the monotony of life indoors. Most families have coped by doing schoolwork, exercise or activity circuits, or increasing screen time.

“I’m bored at home almost all the time,” says Claudia Millan 11, who lives with her parents and 6-year-old brother in Bailén, in southern Spain, “except when I’m playing on my phone or with my pet mouse.”

Even with the newly relaxed measures, some aspects of lockdown life are bound to continue for the time being. Not having school means families have had to adjust. Francisco Millan is working longer hours to keep his small business afloat. His wife, Manuela, works at a supermarket and is stressed that her job may expose her family to disease.

“Sometimes the kids have to be home alone for up to three hours at a time – it’s the only way we could make our schedules work,” says Mr. Millan. “Before the lockdown, they had never been home alone.”

Teenager Daniela Alonso, a nationally-ranked swimmer in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, has gone from training 20 hours per week to doing burpee challenges alone in the living room and homework with classmates via video chat. At 15, Daniela isn’t allowed outside for exercise until May 2, when Spain relaxes lockdown measures for adults.

“I’ve been a little anxious and stressed because at this time last year, we were already training on the beach, having fun with friends,” says Daniela. “Right now, it’s sunny all day, and all I want to do is go out and run and breathe fresh air.”

For Aldo Pagliotta, Cecilia’s older brother, lockdown hasn’t been too much of a grind. He’s been using the extra time at home to read classic books, learn dialects, and make burgers for his family.

And while he went for a walk Sunday with his mother, the teen was not overly excited by the prospect of hanging out with the same person he’s been stuck inside with for six weeks.

“Of course I’m excited that now I can go out,” says Aldo. “But I’d rather be playing handball with my teammates.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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