One major clothing addition with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic is face masks. Some have even made fashion statements with their face masks. We are compelled to wear face masks when we are outside our home or bubble and have to be within 2 metres distance of people not in our household. This advice is based on data that proves that masks prevent the spread of the virus and indeed most respiratory viruses.

When COVID-19 started, we all thought it would be over within a few months as the worst case scenario. Now, over a year later, we continue to have waves and avalanches of infections and staggering numbers of deaths from COVID-19 around the world.

Vaccinations arrived at the end of last year and we rejoiced. No more facemasks. Yippee!! Our excitements were immediately doused with the accompanying message from the World Health Organisation and governments around the world telling us, we must continue to wear face masks for the foreseeable future. How disappointing to hear that part of the news. We must also, keep up the non-pharmaceutical prevention modes; aptly coined ‘Face, Space, Hands’ in England. Not that I expected less from the place where English language originated.

If we know anything about language development, it is that the child creates language from what the child hears, sees and observes in her/his environment and this starts at birth. The new born baby is born with an internal radar to hear and absorb language. This is why the few weeks old baby will turn at the sound of a familiar voice or a loud or unusual noise. As the baby gets older, s/he starts to make sounds. Human sounds. Where did these come from? Babies have been known to intently watch the faces of their carer. Research confirms that this face watching is a way for the child to internalise facial muscular movements around the mouth and neck as we make sounds and talk to the baby. Also, that it is a necessary step in language development.

In an early years classroom, the teacher enunciates the sounds and ensures the child watches her do this. The teacher often lowers herself to the child’s height, so the child gets the opportunity to watch the movements of her facial features as she speaks to her/him.

I had a conversation with a parent of a child 2 years and 6 months old and she expressed her concerns over the language development of her child. She noted that prior to school closures at the end of first quarter 2020, her child had would say the names of the children in her class at home, even though not yet 2 years old at the time. She noted that it appears her child’s language development has stunted and retrogressed. She, the mum, is unable to make sense of the sounds her child is making. Nothing sounds familiar anymore. This got me thinking. What could cause this? Could she be right?

I had a similar conversation with another parent of a child about the same age. She also expressed her concerns on the impact of the 2020 school closure on her child’s language development. When I probed further for her reason for this conclusion, she cited the lack of interaction with other children as a major concern for her. Nursery schools definitely play a major role in supporting the language development children and most pertinently children of working parents. These 2 parents work full time.

The hours spent in school in a high quality nursery environment offers rich language experiences for the child. This is not to say that children who do not attend nursery school are unable to develop language. They do, and some, develop very rich language, nurtured by their parents and carers at home.

These conversations caused me to think. I decided to spend some time observing a nursery classroom and see if anything jumps at me. The first thing that struck me was that the teachers and the children wore face masks in Nursery classroom. At the start of 2021, infections rates were high, so most schools chose this option. WHO does not recommend wearing face masks for children below 5 years old. With the exception of areas where there is a high rate of COVID-19 infection for children over 2 years old in a controlled and closely monitored circumstances. You can read more about that here. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-children-and-masks-related-to-covid-19

There has been many studies about the impact of face masks on impairing oxygen intake and levels in the body and it has been shown not to cause any noticeable impairment.

However, there should be a study on the impact of face masks on language development in the early years. As I observed, even in places where the children do not wear face masks, the teachers most often do in the early years environment. If you go back to what I said earlier about the need for the child to watch and internalise the facial muscular movements of the adult whilst speaking, you will agree that we are depriving the children of this process when nursery class teachers don face masks in the classroom. The face mask prevents the child from seeing the natural movements in the face and neck as the teacher is talking and is like speaking to a child whilst facing away from the child’s line of sight. This is against what all the development experts advise for adults supporting children to develop language. We must find a balance between disease protection and supporting child development.

Would it be correct to say that facemasks constitute an impediment to language development? If the children learning to read and write cannot see the teacher’s facial muscular movements, is the child being offered the best chance at success?

Although, WHO notes that the reason why they do not recommend face masks for children below 5 years is that the children do have the right coordination of mental and physical ability to handle this in prolonged situations. I wander if they considered language development.

I am of the opinion that nursery school teachers stick to clear face shields, ones that the children can see through clearly. Also, children 2-5 years old should not wear face masks at all.

We must explore other ways of mitigating the spread of the virus like; regular handwashing, keeping the environment clean, zero tolerance for illness in school and smaller classrooms to name a few.

Do you agree? Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

Yinka Awobo-Pearse
Lead Consultant
Woodentots Consult Limited