By Sharon Chin

MILLBRAE (KPIX) — Kasia Shopov brings her 20-month-old daughter Sofia to learn and play with other kids up to age 3. Sofia and her parents had sheltered at home for more than a year.

“We didn’t go to any playgrounds, we didn’t go to any interactions with other people during the whole pandemic. We only had two friends we interacted with. That was it and they were younger,” Shopov said.

Once Shopov and her husband got the COVID-19 vaccine in May, they started bringing Sofia to parent-child classes twice a week at The Little Gym of Millbrae.

“She just loves it. She’s so enthusiastic. She looks forward to it,” Shopov said.

Since Millbrae’s Little Gym reopened in March, the parent-child sessions have been full with a waiting list.

Owner Lisa Chuang is fielding many calls from families who want their kids to learn motor and social skills through play.

“A lot of it is about risk-taking, socializing with kids that are in the class with them — taking turns,” Chuang said.

That is the kind of development many kids have missed while isolated from others, according to licensed clinical social worker Kristen Hurvitz.

“Children learn to manage their frustrations, self-regulation, cooperation, communication, expressing emotion,” Hurvitz explained.

Without healthy interaction with their peers, some little ones may show signs of stress.

Hurvitz says parents should look for changes in behavior.

“If they’re noticing differences in appetite, particularly in young children, anxiety can be a little different — it could be more anger, more irritability, increased sadness,” she said.

At the parent-child class, instructor Raquel Camacho says the pandemic has made a difference: more first-timers are coming to class more cautious — even anxious — around new people.

“Before COVID, they’d run up to me, give me hugs, ‘Ms Raquel, it’s so good to see you!’ but now they’re like ‘stranger danger, I have no idea who you are,'” said Camacho.

There are some things that parents can do to help their kids socialize safely, from outdoor playdates to going on nature walks.

“Coloring together, building blanket forts, obstacle courses, reading stories can be a way for children to explore and express emotions,” Hurvitz said.

And she adds the good news is children are resilient.

Like Sofia.

Shopov said, “Her first class, she was a little apprehensive but, by the second class, she was all about exploring and running around.”

Since young children are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, many parents are doing their homework and inquiring about safety guidelines for class.

In the case of The Little Gym of Millbrae, it follows CDC guidelines on wearing masks, washing hands and disinfecting surfaces and it limits participation to just one parent at a time.