‘I get to play with my friends’: NSW playdates break free of Zoom

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Locked down in Sydney’s inner west, seven-year-old Yasmin and her four-year-old sister Sophia run circles around their brother Jacob, two, as he pushes along on a bike in their local park.

Yasmin says she’s “really excited”.

This week, the NSW government has opened a “friends bubble” for under 18s. Children with fully vaccinated parents can now nominate three friends who live in the same LGA or within five kilometres to visit in an exclusive bubble.

“Now I get to play with my friends,” Yasmin says. “We can play all of the different things we used to inside their house, and with their toys.”

In lockdown, Yasmin and Sophia have out-played hide and seek. They’ve also spent lots of time running away from Jacob, who chases them with his make-believe lawnmower.

Sophia says she’s been really bored at home, because “Jakey doesn’t really know how to play games yet”. Yasmin says she misses playing tips in the school playground at lunchtime. Both sisters respond “yes” in unison when asked if they miss their friends.

“Lockdown has been difficult with three children in their younger years,” the siblings’ mother, Samar Yates, says. “Especially for the kids to be away from their friends for so long.”

Related: Australia’s supply of Pfizer Covid vaccine may face disruption in October

She and her husband, James, have tried to “compensate with Zoom calls with their friends”.

“But the kids are young. They get screen shy or stage fright when they’re in front of a phone having a conversation.

“It’s not the same,” she says. “They really just need that carefree nature of play with friends.”

In announcing the sudden new measure for under-18s, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has acknowledged that “parents and children have had a difficult few months” balancing work from home and homeschooling.

“This change will hopefully make a big difference for families during the school holidays,” Berejiklian said. “It will allow young children and teenagers to catch up and reconnect with their friends.”

Yasmin is especially excited to see her closest school friend, Charlize.

“Charlize has been my friend since kindergarten, year one and also preschool too.

“We used to sit together at lunch, and play tips and running races.”

Not being able to properly see Charlize this term, Yasmine says “it feels like you don’t really feel that close anymore”.

“It makes me feel sad.”

When Yasmin gets to see Charlize again, they will play at the park. “I also want to go to the aquarium, and do lots more stuff together.”

While restrictions haven’t eased enough for a visit to the aquarium, Yasmin’s mother says the strict friends bubble will be great for her kids.

“I’ve got one school age child, one preschool age, and then a daycare age toddler, all at home at the same time.”

While she has been homeschooling her eldest daughter Yasmin, her younger children “are pretty much left to their own devices”.

She says the distractions at home are difficult too.

“Without a designated area, you’re having to work in a communal space. So the child trying to be homeschooled is distracted constantly by the younger kids, and you’re forever trying to mediate and negotiate.”

Yates says it’s “emotionally exhausting, trying to manage the different personalities and age groups, and trying to keep them all stimulated”.

Related: Roadmaps out of lockdown: why NSW and Victoria are taking different paths to Covid normal

“The younger children don’t always play on their own. Civilly, anyway,” Yates laughs. “They all need that interaction.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, Yates says that carefree interaction has been gradually lost as their family have felt constantly on guard.

“If we come into contact with people, we are on guard. Especially in the period when we were unvaccinated as parents, we were very guarded in our approach with other people.”

“The carefree nature of children playing has been lost,” she says. “Usually we’d be able to catch up with friends at a park or house. Parents do their thing, and the kids can run wild. They get to be freer than they are at the moment.”

“It has taken a toll.” Yates says her kids are bored and restless.

“There are days where they’re sick of us, as parents, being with them all the time. We’ve been with each other 24 hours a day for 12 weeks straight, if not longer than that. It’s hard for them. And the exhaustion makes it hard for us.”

Yates said that, while her kids can’t wait to see their friends, the children that will “really benefit” are “the ones who are an only child”.

“They’ve suffered a lot. Some families we know have two full-time working parents, and one child without anyone else to play with.”

The health minister, Brad Hazzard, said the friends bubble is aimed at giving children the opportunity to balance Covid safety with their mental health and wellbeing. It will also give high school students entering their HSC exams the chance to meet up and study together in preparation.

Berejiklian said the under-18s friends bubble is a result of NSW’s strong rates of vaccination.

As of Monday this week, 82.5% of NSW’s eligible population have had their first vaccination jab, and 53% have had their double doses. Roughly 20% of 12-to 15-year-olds in NSW were vaccinated in just two weeks.

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