With schools closed across the country, many parents are wondering how the whole family will survive the coming weeks and months with social distancing, and daycares, camps, playgrounds and extra-curricular activities shuttered, postponed, or cancelled – in some cases, indefinitely.
First, go easy on yourself and manage your expectations, advised Julie Freedman Smith, co-founder of ParentingPower.ca, a parent education company based in Alberta. “It’s not the end of the world if you take a few days to figure everything out.”
The idea of spending 24/7 at home with your kids while juggling work can seem overwhelming and extremely stressful. And as tempting as it is to park your kids in front of a screen all day so you can get work done, children need structure and social interaction.
One of the first and most important things parents can do is find and prioritize coping strategies, said Dwayne Matthews, an education strategist. Whether it is mindfulness, exercise, or putting aside spiritual time, make sure these coping methods are a part of your daily routine and do not get neglected.
“You want to make sure all those things are being done and they’re top of mind,” Matthews told CTV’s Your Morning. “It’s really sort of like the oxygen mask on a plane – you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help anyone else.”
If you are not sure what kind of mindfulness activities you can do as a family, a quick Google search can be a source of inspiration. For Matthews and his family, that means practising mindfulness in the morning, making sure there is time set aside every day for exercise and getting some vitamin D outside.
ROUTINES AND SCHEDULES
“Kids in school or child care are used to having a schedule,” Freedman Smith told CTVNews.ca, so maintaining that consistency and structure is essential. It can also help defuse some of the stress and conflict that comes with parenting – instead of bossing your children around all day, they have a schedule to follow.
Sit down with your kids and let them have a say in the schedule so they are buying into it, experts recommend. Some suggest setting goals as well.
Get younger kids involved by having them propose foods and activities they like. For older kids, ask them what they would like to do on their own and what they would like to do together (taking a walk somewhere, for example).
Write it down and post it somewhere visible. For younger kids, the schedule can be in pictures. Revisit after a few days to see if the plan works or needs adjusting. Don’t get stressed out if you have trouble sticking to it – it should be a helpful guide for parents and kids, not another source of stress.
Find a balance between inactivity, activity and social interaction. This means breaking up inactive time on the schedule with something active. Take a walk around the block, have an indoor family dance party, or play a card game that requires family members to do a physical activity, for example.
Schedule quiet time. This can be colouring, listening to calm music, or even screen time.
“With everyone in the same space, it can become really overwhelming,” said Freedman Smith.
Food, sleep, and time with parents are all essential parts of the schedule that need to be consistent.
Build chores into the schedule so the kids can pitch in. If possible, you can split responsibilities and alternate the following day. For example, one child and a parent will make dinner while the other child helps with clean-up.
Include reading time together, especially for younger children.
For older kids who are always on a device, try to incorporate time where they are creating with technology – for example, writing or making music – instead of just consuming it. But also make sure they have time away from the screen – exercising, reading, helping with chores.
It’s also easy to allow older kids to be completely independent, but that could mean being on the screen all day consuming scary news about the pandemic. So another consideration is scheduling how often the family checks for COVID-19 updates.
Other suggestions include loosening screen time allowances for younger children, and making sure limits are set for older ones.
BUT HOW DO I GET ANY WORK DONE?
We all remember the BBC News segment when Robert Kelly’s young daughter strutted onto international TV during a video interview on North Korea, with her baby sibling rolling in seconds later.
Working from home with kids is hard. It’s even more difficult when there is uncertainty around how long the situation will last. Adding to the challenge are the changes to our normal support system – daycares, play centres and libraries may be closed, while back-up help from grandparents may no longer be an option due to the health risk concerns associated with the virus.
“It’s pretty unrealistic, especially with young kids, to say, you guys go play on your own for five hours,” said Freedman Smith.
For a five-year-old who has never done that, it can be impossible, so schedule small blocks of time. Ask them to play with Lego or another activity and set a timer for 15 minutes, so you can answer three emails, for example. Set bigger blocks of time, such as an hour, for older children.
“If you’re going to put your kids in front of a screen to watch a movie or to watch a series of shows, use your time wisely, but be realistic about it,” Freedman Smith added.
And importantly, if you say you will be back to play with them at a certain time, stick to it.
“Kids need time with us. If the only way they can get time with us is by not doing something and misbehaving, they’ll do it,” Freedman Smith said. “Don’t put it off, it will bite you in the butt.”
If you are fortunate to have a partner working from home as well, take turns with the kids. One scheduling possibility is having one parent work uninterrupted one day, while the other parent spends intermittent time with the kids, and then switch roles the following day.
The reality, however, is that productivity will be impacted working from home with children.
Set realistic expectations and work that into your child’s schedule.
ONLINE LEARNING AND FREE SUBSCRIPTIONS
In many provinces, schools are closed indefinitely. It’s a lot of missed school and parents may also be at a loss for how to provide some academic continuity.
For many families, the resources needed to keep your kids learning are readily available at home, said education strategist Matthews. From beans to paper to the internet, there are many sources of inspiration for that math lesson or craft session you want to have with your child.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Education has launched a Learn at Home site, and the TDSB has resources available online as well.
Keeping the kids completely off screens will likely be impossible for many parents, but instead of letting them fall into a mindless black hole of toy-unboxing videos and reviews, there are many online learning resources geared towards children.
Khan Academy is a nonprofit that offers free courses for all levels from children to adults, and subjects from early math and grammar to engineering to art history. Raz-Kids.com provides hundreds of interactive eBooks for kids from kindergarten to Grade 5 and has a 14-day free trial. Scholastics.ca also has read aloud video books, Learn at Home resources for parents and other activities. Google “30 day Lego challenge” and a number of printable ideas will pop up.
Kidsactivitiesblog.com compiled a collection of educational YouTube channels for kids, dozens of online field trips they can take around the world and explore “virtually”, and an exhaustive list of education companies that are offering free subscriptions due to the school closures. Sprig, an Ottawa-based company, is offering free access to learn-at-home resources for parents during to closures, for example. For more free resources and ideas, see the bottom of the article.
DIGITAL PLAYDATES AND FACETIME PARTIES
A key part of school is recess and lunchtime, and interacting with other children. With health officials stressing the necessity for “social distancing” during the pandemic, there are still things parents can do to help maintain that social connection.
Set aside time to “meet up” with a friend online via Facetime or Google Hangouts video, Matthew said. Or coordinate with several friends and have a Facetime party or group video conversation on Hangouts.
“If you don’t have that kind of device, pick up the phone and make sure that there’s a conversation. Texting is pretty cool, but sometimes we need to have the voice and we need to have the face,” said Matthews, who has been reaching out to families and cousins around the world and “taking the opportunity to reconnect with people.”
With so much uncertainty over the pandemic and what the coming weeks will look like, having a schedule, structure, will help bring a sense of control, Freedman Smith said. And with social distancing a way of life in our immediate and foreseeable future, maintaining a balance between inactivity, activity, social interaction, and having coping strategies for our children will be especially important.
Additional free online activities and learning resources: