Using this mix of quantitative and qualitative exploratory approaches, we identified trends in national contexts and highlight cross-national features of children’s experiences during the time of the lockdown. We then present the emerging trends from the children’s narratives focusing on their experience of the lockdown in relation to family life, school life, contacts with friends and time and space. For each theme, quantitative data collected in Switzerland are first described followed by the analyses of the qualitative data collected in the three participating countries enhancing and strengthening our understanding of children’s experiences.
Major Trends in National Contexts
In terms of major trends in national contexts, the Swiss qualitative studies show that in the children’s narratives, there are representations of normal everyday life, negative changes caused by the lockdown - especially with regard to their friendship contacts - and positive aspects, which primarily relate to an everyday life that is considerably less pre-structured in terms of time, space and content. The idea that Corona is something special seems to be primarily an adult perspective and is not as pronounced in the children’s narratives. The representation of children as “healthy carriers, vectors of the virus” has placed in the background their specific needs during this social upheaval and does mean that their opinions on this crisis has been overlooked. The interviewed children seemed accepting the changing conditions induced by the pandemic with much more flexibility than their parents. Here we understand “flexibility” in psychological terms, along with the definition used by Coyne et al. (2020):
“Psychological flexibility refers to the ability to recognize and adapt to situational demands, to remain aware and open to the present moment such that one can recognize and shift behaviour strategies as required by situational demands, and to engage in actions that are congruent with one’s deeply held values (Hayes et al. 2012; Kashdan and Rottenberg 2010)” (Coyne et al. 2020, p. 2).
In Canada, children had a good understanding of the COVID19 pandemic and of the protective measures. There was little concern about being ill with COVID19, but many of the children were nonetheless afraid of transmitting the virus and were worried about the health of their grandparents. They reported many losses in relation to the lockdown, but also opportunities that they valued. They found it particularly difficult to be away from their friends, to be unable to attend school and the suspension of their extra-curricular activities (sports and arts), as well as the boredom that resulted from all these interruptions. On the other hand, the majority of the children reported spending more quality time with their families, as well as re-appropriating some time that they were able to use enjoy as they wished, taking advantage of this time to start new activities, take care of themselves and adopt a slower pace that suited them better.
In Estonia, the analysis revealed that children understood the seriousness of the pandemic crisis. However, they also demonstrated a positive attitude and understood why the lockdown was necessary. Social distance from friends was the most difficult challenge noted by the children. They also missed teachers and the school atmosphere and doing hobbies online could not compete with these previous contacts. Kindergarten children missed their friends and wished to return to kindergarten. However, children also gave reasons why the new situation was good for them. If they had a magic wand, they would end the virus (and the other diseases) for ever. Most often, they were concerned about the lives of their grandparents who the children understood belonged to the at-risk group for fatal outcomes from contracting the virus and whom they could not visit. Children felt that there was more anxiety and tensions in mutual relationships. Compared to girls, boys expressed more concerns about their changed everyday lives.
We now turn to cross-national comparisons about family and school life, contacts with friends, leisure activities, before finally discussing the impacts of the lockdown on children’s relational well-being.
Trends Emerging from children’s Experiences
Experience of the Lockdown in Relation to Family Life
The family appears to be decisive in the lockdown experience of children. In Switzerland, 79% of the respondents declared that family life is more or less the same, 13% that family life is better than before and 8% that it has deteriorated. The overall positive evaluation of family life is shared by children from the three countries, mainly expressed in terms of more and better time spent with family members:
“We spend more time together, we enjoy doing new things, we all learn to live together, we share the household chores, like cooking, cleaning…” (girl, 15 years old, Switzerland)
“I can spend more time with my family” (girl 13 years old; boy 10 years old, Estonia)
“It allowed us to spend quality time together. We will remember this time for the rest of our lives. When I have children, I will tell them about it.” (boy 9 years old, Canada)
The lockdown is associated with more stability and opportunities to have more shared hobbies, develop greater closeness and enjoy more dialogue in the family framework. Learning new activities with their families (gardening, sewing, cooking, building, etc.) is especially popular among the children. Parents are seen as an important source of support during the lockdown period, and many said this period brought them closer to their parents:
“(My mom and I) became really close during lockdown. We got really close, like we had the same feelings. We are really, like, connected. (...) And we helped each other during lockdown. It felt good to feel closer to my mother.” (girl 15 years old, Canada)
However, for some children, disputes and conflicts with other family members were more frequent, and they experienced bad moods and frustration within their family as well as discomfort linked to family proximity (not being able to be alone, feeling being permanently under the observation of their parent(s)). Moreover, children also talked about time shared with their siblings during the lockdown, playing and exploring their home’s surroundings. Nevertheless, some children admitted that there was more anxiety and stress around and siblings were not always nice. Everyday life had changed in terms of activities and relationships: families lived as closed communities with more anxiety and stress and more struggles between siblings.
“Sometimes, my family gets on my nerves. We are together a lot, and our house is big but not gigantic. So, we are stuck together a lot, and it’s a bit tiring. (girl 14 years old, Canada)
“I do not like that my sister and brother bully me […] Sometimes I bully them too” (boy 6 years old, Estonia)
In somewhat of a paradox, despite these findings about staying together and sharing the same space for days with family members, some children also complained about being lonely and feeling bored. This stems from the many meaningful relationships that were put on hold during the lockdown period, for example, with extended family, such as grandparents.
“What’s hard is when you’re alone. Your brother and sister are doing their homework, and your mother is studying, so you have nothing to do” (boy 12 years, Canada)
“Staying at home is so boring for me” (boy 8 years old, Estonia)
“I went to see my grandpa, at one point, and I was, like, talking to him on the phone and looking at him through the window, and it really broke my heart. (boy 15 years old, Canada)
“I cannot visit my grandparents and cannot play football with my grandma (girl 9 years old, Estonia);
The results illustrate how the lockdown has changed intergenerational solidarity in two directions: from older to younger generations and from younger to older generations. By “intergenerational solidarity” we refer to “the different types of transfers and/or gifts occurring between persons of different age-groups and creating social cohesion between generations” (Bengston et.al., 1976 and Katz et al., 2005).
In some moments, children spoke about themselves reflecting how they did their agency at home. On one hand, they valued receiving more attention from parents and enjoyed their closeness, but they also tried to be self-directed and self-efficient and cope with the situation by themselves.
“I like to ask help from my family when I have some problem however, I still try to manage myself” (girl 10 years old, Estonia)
Additionally, doing agency also revealed transfers outside families between households mediated by children’s friendships, as is shown in the following case observed in Zurich. The child interviewed, given the pseudonym Liliane, narrated how she had developed a relationship with another child through the fact that her neighbour “gave” them - her, her younger brother, and the neighbouring child - a small children’s hut in the garden of the neighbouring property:
“our neighbor [,,,] she has a small house for her children who are already grown up. So a very tiny house where the paint has already flaked off quite a bit //mhm// and then she gave it to us […] and then we decorated everything again and then we planted some flowers […] and then we have a garden in the back where we have the little bench and a small table and a chair […] there because you can sit down and read and so //mhm// and the house is also very nice and yeah” (girl 9 years old, Switzerland)
Liliane, her younger brother and the neighbour child had opened a new place in this small house, which they appropriated as exclusively available to the three of them. The formerly dilapidated and ivy-covered children’s hut was repaired and redesigned by them - very neatly with a raked path, flowers and which they made very tidy inside. Due to the small size of the house and the small garden surrounding it, which is surrounded by a wooden fence in the same bourgeois style as the whole residential area, adults have no access to the hut and the children are very keen to keep it tidy. They enjoyed having created this order and beauty themselves - as they emphasize without the help of adults. They experienced themselves as capable subjects, who had thus created their own space, to which they withdraw to read, play, garden and paint. This case shows that opening of new “spaces of childhood” is a necessary movement that is needed by children who otherwise feel that the space usually left to them is shrinking as a result of lockdown measures. The lockdown accentuates the double-sided reality of intergenerational solidarity, namely the paradoxical social bonding in societies marked by high levels of individualism whereby one needs at the same time to belong to a group and to be recognized as a distinct self. The results about the contrasts in family life discussed previously in this section demonstrate children’s need for individual space - not only physical but also emotional and mental. The autonomy of children in the regulation of their emotional well-being could also be reduced by increased parental attention, which they sometimes perceived as exaggerated.
Experience of Lockdown in Relation to School
Despite that half of the respondents interviewed in Switzerland asserted that school life had not changed for them, moving to distance learning overnight was a major change for children in Estonia and Switzerland, who expressed diverse feelings concerning it. On the one hand, children valued the opportunity to plan their work, to determine the tempo and time of their activities, to be able to sleep more in the morning, be together with their family, have a meal when they felt like it, and use the internet to help them out with doing the home school exercises. Some subjects were attractive just because of the distance learning. The home atmosphere supported children to do their school exercises, in that the children were able to consult with their parents and the absence of their classmates meant that a usual source that disturbed their focus on learning in the classroom was absent. They felt they worked faster when alone in part because they did not have to wait for others to understand the instructions provided by teachers and/or the material. Some children even admitted that this was the best situation for them and had the impression that their school life had improved.
“I can develop my time schedule” (boy 10 years old, Estonia)
“I can follow my own tempo doing things” (girl, 9 years old, Estonia)
“I like everything. I like this routine. I like the longer sleep and that there is no need to change clothes” (girl 16 years old, Estonia)
However, several reasons were also provided as to why distance learning made children concerned and many of them experienced a deteriorated form of schooling. For children in Switzerland, the main reasons for dislike of distance learning concerned the lack of progress and the limited number of subjects covered during lockdown, while children in Estonia complained about having an increased workload from school and disliked the change in the pattern and form of communicating with their teacher. When asked about the bad things in their lives during the lockdown, the key-term children provided in their answers appeared to be ‘distance’: learning from distance and keeping friends (and dearest relatives such as grandparents) at distance, thus, children’s relational well-being was challenged.
“I would prefer to go to school because the teacher explains in class more, now I must work more myself to understand the material” (girl 9 years old, Estonia)
“Sometimes when I need help from my teacher, she is not available” (girl 13 years old, Estonia);
“I would like to have more video talks with classmates to discuss different topics” (girl 10 years old, Estonia)
Learning is a co-operative effort between children and teachers. Children, being used to meet their teachers on a daily basis, were no longer experiencing this routine experience, even though this was a temporary change. Moreover, distance learning also means the absence of face-to-face contacts with peers and the lack of joint activities that are important for forming the school atmosphere. They admitted that they missed school.
“School atmosphere helped me focus on learning. At home instead there are many other things and activities that I would prefer to focus on” (girl 10 years old, Estonia).
In Canada, schools were closed for more than 8 weeks with no distance learning except for children in private schools. Indeed, public schools were not organized for online courses and in order to avoid creating inequalities between children with computer hardware and internet access and those without access to it, governments decided to suspend all school activities during the lockdown period, corresponding to the time of data collection. In this context, children mentioned they missed their teachers and looked forward to beginning distance learning lessons to see them again, while older students, who were not going back to school “in person” before the end of the school year, tended to express disappointment about having missed the chance to say goodbye to them properly. Moreover, children also expressed great disappointment in the loss of end-of-year school activities, such as shows, graduation, or trips— important rituals that usually mark the end of the school year and the passage to another stage.
“I miss my Phys. Ed. teacher; it’s really fun being able to do Phys. Ed. at school with him.” (girl 10 years old, Canada)
“For me, it’s a relief that it’s ending this way, but, at the same time, it makes me angry because it seems like I can’t say goodbye to my high school days in a legitimate way” (boy 17 years old, Canada).
The doing of agency was clearly exhibited amongst the participants from Estonia when children stressed freedom to make time schedules themselves, do their activities at their own pace and in the order they wished. Children valued new knowledge and skills that they had developed due to the new situation and the requirements made of them through online learning. Additionally, learning online together with other children was valued because joint video-talks contributed to their relational well-being.
“Distance learning has helped me to cope with the computer’s world, this is new and cool experience” (girl 9 years old, Estonia)
“I like doing my exercises in the computer. I like video-talks” (boy 8 years old, Estonia)
“Video-talks are good because at least then I can communicate with friends” (boy 11 years old, Estonia).
Children acknowledged the value of conventional face-to-face contact learning at school and seeing friends face-to-face as an engine of their relational well-being. Still, the pandemic brought about dramatic change in the customary learning process for all parties. The question remains whether communication from distance and the home environment would have a similar potential for reaching the joint aims of learning and personal growth. Moreover, can distance learning compensate for the missing face-to-face communication and safeguard the relational well-being of children, teachers and parents.
Experience of the Lockdown in Relation to Contact with Friends
Half of the respondents in Switzerland said that their social life with friends stayed more or less the same. Only 8 % said it was better than before, and 42% complained about the situation getting worse. Separation from friends or loss of contact with them is also mentioned as a significant difficulty in lockdown in the qualitative research with the children in the three countries. Family isolation and distancing were felt as the cause for the decline in the quality of friendships:
“We only see each other through video calls, so it’s more difficult to talk about personal matters and we are suddenly less close than before.” (girl 13 years old, Switzerland)
Social distance was perceived as negatively affecting friendship because it led to less dialogue and less things to share with friends, leaving children with hardly any possibility for seeing each other in person. Some explained that it was not the same as before the lockdown with their friends— that they do not know what to say to them, as they no longer share their daily lives, do not really know how to keep in touch, and miss playing in a group. This kind of social distance seems especially difficult for adolescents who found it very difficult to no longer be able to see their romantic partner. In fact, finding other means for communication could not substitute for real contact.
“I don’t think I am experiencing joy, like, not at all. I can’t see my friends, and time passes slowly.” (boy 11 years old, Canada)
“Communication with friends over social media is not enough for me, I miss direct contacts with friends” (girl 16 years old, Estonia)
“I would like to spend time with my friends, to speak with them and play” (girl 11 years old, Estonia)
Preschool children also said they missed their friends and kindergarten teachers, and were waiting for the time to go back to kindergarten:
“I cannot see my friends, we would play together and I would show them my new things. I am so sad that I cannot meet my friends” (girl 5 years, Estonia)
Friends are important factors in determining relational well-being of children. This becomes very clear in the narratives where children speak about missing their (best) friends. This missing is described as a strong feeling, which is also reflected in their concrete everyday life. At the same time, this is also where the possibility of something new becomes apparent: the fact that the fixed structure of spending time with the (best) friends is eliminated by lockdown also leads to the creation of new individual friendships, evident in “corona relationships” being formed between two to three families in the neighbouring area. For example, Liliane, the 8-year-old girl, reports the following:
"I also like the fact that I had contact with other children with whom I didn't play with before because I always played with my best friend. I haven't played with her for a long time //mhm // and then I thought it was cool to do something with the other girl". (girl 9 years old, Switzerland)
Because friendships - and especially “best friendships” - have an excluding character and this character is now reduced by the pandemic – regulation, this has two connected consequences. On the one hand, Liliane finds it sad that she cannot meet her two best friends at the moment and that the virtual contact she has with them is also insufficient. At the same time, she evaluates it as very positive that she has developed a new friendship precisely for this reason - the social time-space void that is filled by a child who she still knows from her kindergarten days, but who had not yet been one of her friends.
Experience of the Lockdown in Relation to Space, Time and Self
In Switzerland, 48% of the respondents mentioned that their leisure time was negatively impacted by the semi-lockdown. For 30%, their hobbies were more or less the same and 21% mentioned an improvement. Those who found their hobbies had improved said that they had more time for leisure/hobbies (e.g., music, crafts, etc.). They also mentioned the opportunity to do different activities that are more creative, doable alone, and a greater freedom to choose and schedule the activities. Many children found that they appreciated the growing shared hobbies and activities with family members. Canadian children mentioned the same.
“I’m learning to cook and to have fun cooking. We also have time to take care of our garden. We planted lots of seedlings; we have lots of peppers, tomatoes. We also planted flowers. We have time to discover new things.” (girl 15 years old, Canada).
In an opposite set of experiences, the negative evolution of leisure activities is linked to restrictions, such as being able to do less sport (interruption of lessons and competitions), less outdoor recreation because they are not feasible to do inside, and having less leisure time with friends. Hobbies and leisure pose the greatest problem for respondents, who found themselves not only being deprived from the activities they enjoy but also from the social bond that these activities allow. They described feeling less physically well since they had stopped practising their sports, sleeping less well, not knowing how to train alone, and being worried about regaining their physical condition after lockdown. Children listed many spaces and hobbies to which they no longer had access and which they missed.
“(What I would like) is to be able to go to places like skateparks, skate with my friends… we can’t go now because it’s closed, and there are roadblocks.” (boy 10 years old, Canada);
“…we have to keep our distance, and we can’t go to public places.” (girl 14 years old, Canada)
Similar findings were evident in Estonia, where during the lockdown some extra-curriculum activities closed doors while some continued online: children had their music and singing, and even competitive dance e-classes that added indoor work load to children at home. In the interviews, children expressed feeling sorry especially for missing outdoor games with friends and did not speak much about their hobby at schools.
Along with missed and cancelled activities, lockdown also inspired the discovery of new activities which allowed them to adopt new routines that were more consistent with their own rhythm and to take more care of themselves (e.g., doing yoga, writing positive thoughts in a journal, etc.). In Switzerland, for the new activities (family activities, games, sports), two thirds of the children made decisions themselves about what the new activities were. The activities that had been imposed on them mainly concerned household chores - children thus showed only some spirit of initiative. For activities that children had to give up - those involving close contact: mainly sports, dancing, seeing friends, going to town, to restaurants, etc. - impediments were imposed in the majority of cases (75%). This shows that children have agency in designing the new activities they want to have, while they are to obey the restrictions imposed on them. The collective dimension of new joint activities has to be underlined: children particularly appreciated initiating new activities with their families (gardening, sewing, cooking, building, etc.). However, it seems to predominate that the children appreciate having more time for themselves and to do activities such as reading and playing. Here it seems to be above all about an appreciation of significantly more possibilities of temporal self-direction and developing their own agency. Taking time for themselves obtained a real value in children’s perspectives.
“I found out that I like climbing trees, since we have a forest in front of our house, and my brothers and I go into the woods more.” (boy 12 years old, Canada)
“But now we are freer, we enjoy life more, we enjoy the present moment more— that’s it.” (girl 10 years old, Canada);
The lack of activity allowed a slower pace and helped children to feel less stress and anxiety. This newly discovered freedom during lockdown allowed them to learn about themselves and to appreciate the small pleasures of their daily lives.
In the present studies, children thus reported ambivalent experiences in terms of hobby activities and leisure. On the one hand, there were restrictions in their local area: the apartment, the house, the garden, the street, the nearby forest. The compulsion not to be able to leave this space was experienced as restricting and limiting. However, children tried to explore their experiences and learn from negative ones, for example how to cope without meeting friends or spend time outdoors.
“I actually realized that I wasn’t necessarily benefiting enough from what I had because I took it for granted.” (boy 17 years old, Canada)
“I think this is mentally challenging how you cope with doing nothing, staying all the time in the same place, not to get tired from all this (girl 16 years old, Estonia)
“I do not understand my new experience whether this is related to the lockdown. This is like I am learning working more independently, I learn not to meet others” (girl 11 years old, Estonia)
Children reported completely new appropriations of space, new experiences and possibilities in this space - such as Liliane’s narration about the children’s hut in the neighbouring garden. The situation is somewhat clearer with regard to time: here, the children also admit the lack of a time structure, boredom and loss of time.
Finally, children shared ideas how to make their lives better, thinking of not only about themselves but also about other people. Moreover - being concerned about the entire World. The new life situation had caused some hesitation and changes in their worldview.
“I could make my life better in the current situation. For example, if I could think that not spending time outdoors or not going for shopping is for everybody’s good (girl 10 years old, Estonia)
“There are two poles inside myself. One of them is thinking, oh, I would wish there would be peace in the world, no racism. My other pole thinks of money, clothes, cars… World peace, no global warming, and then … please ten “milkies” to me and everything will be ok” (girl 16 years old, Estonia).
To conclude, children were poised to develop their agency through coping with new unexpected situations, acting more independently, taking responsibility and thinking of the value of other people (e.g., relatives, friends, teachers, etc.). They exercised their relational well-being in new ways and applied this in different aspects of their life.