When Ashwin Rao suddenly found out that his 11-year-old daughter would be at home after her Seattle school closed in early March, he knew—like a lot of parents facing COVID-19 challenges—that his family was in for a big change.
Granted, Sophie is still taking morning online classes, and many other parents are practicing some form of distance learning, either through their schools or various websites. But with more than 38 million public school students home because of the coronavirus pandemic in 38 states, this unprecedented time in U.S. education has left parents wondering: Regardless of how much “class time” their children are getting, how do you keep kids from bouncing off the walls all day?
“Parenting already takes so much energy,” says Laura Gray, a clinical psychologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “For many of us who are going to be working and structuring our kids’ days at home, it’s adding a different layer of difficulty.”
No one’s sure yet how long children will be kept out of school to minimize the spread of coronavirus infection. But any amount of time is certainly a disruption. Here are some ideas to keep kids—and you—sane while in close quarters during the pandemic.
The big secret: prep work and consistency
Rao, a sports medicine physician for the Seattle Seahawks, said his family had prepared in advance for Sophie’s involuntary homeschooling by being in communication with her school about what to expect and getting their home and technology ready for online learning—both of which led to a smooth transition.
He’s also working closely with his wife, Jennifer, who’s now working at home, on tag-teaming Sophie’s care. If you do have a partner at home, Gray suggests communicating with each other every night about how to tackle the coming day.
And that day should be predictable, since children are accustomed to a regular sequence of events at daycare or school. “A daily schedule is going to be so important, especially because most of our children spend so much of their time out [of the house],” Gray says. “They’re used to a consistent routine.”
One thing that will help kids get used to their “new normal” is an official schedule so that kids won’t be knocked off their routine. Toddlers or younger elementary school kids will enjoy drawing pictures of the day’s or week’s activities; older kids can create a written one with times and activities. Try mapping out the next day’s activities the night before, or the week’s activities the Sunday before.
Some of those activities should be educational, regardless of whether your child’s school is doing formal structured education. Plan those out as well, integrating blocks of academic time into the regular routine. For ideas, check out the website Amazing Educational Resources, which maintains a spreadsheet of education companies offering temporarily free subscriptions during the pandemic; National Geographic Education for educational activity collections; and National Geographic Kids for quizzes, videos, and animal profiles.
And though it will be tempting to stay up late or sleep in, don’t shift too much from the school-night schedule. (That means you, too, Mom!) “Our bodies are designed to have specific sleep-wake cycles,” Gray says.
Throw in some surprises
Trying to use this time as “all school, all the time” will quickly get old, both for parents and their resistant kids. Gray recommends rotating in toys or activities that kids haven’t seen or done in a while. “It could be baking cookies with the family, a messy science experiment, a special craft they haven’t used, or family board games,” she says. “My kids like to put on talent shows.”
Rao likes to make sure that Sophie’s doing things like practicing piano and cooking meals for the family in addition to educational activities. “We find areas to do enriching things, as well as relaxing things,” he said. That includes things such as limited screen time to help decompress. (Here’s how to talk to kids about coronavirus.)
Gray also recommends alternating between busy and quiet activities, like doing a household chore and then reading. (Here’s an article for kids that explains the basics about COVID-19.)
Yes, we’ve all heard the advice about social distancing and basically shunning everyone except your immediate family. But that doesn’t mean kids need to be cooped up in the house all day. It’s still important to incorporate safe exercise and fresh air, Gray says, such as giving kids a list of items to find in the backyard, like acorns or leaves.
Rao says his family spends a lot of time safely outdoors, gardening and taking short jogs around the city’s Green Lake. "It’s pretty empty now in Seattle, so it’s not hard to be distanced when we’re outdoors," he says. "And we typically keep at least six feet of space from anyone," Rao says. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends these safety tips as well.
Make technology your friend
Let’s face it: All those limits you’ve dutifully placed on screen time are about to completely blow up. The key now is how you use that screen time for your child’s benefit. Look for enriching yet fun content, like games and videos from PBS Kids or Khan Academy Kids. Podcasts for kids, like Greeking Out and Brains On!, can also engage children who are quickly becoming bored at home.
It’s still a good idea to try to limit their screen time and exposure to media. Closely monitor what content they’re exposed to, and make sure time limits are set up front. “That way, it doesn’t become an argument later,” Gray says.
That said, do use technology to stay socially connected, a crucial part of both kids’ and parents’ mental health. Gray suggests having a virtual dinner party with cousins in another city.
Don’t forget you
To keep kids healthy, parents need to stay healthy too. Make sure you’re connecting with your own social support network, and schedule some restorative time for yourself.
And of course, don’t forget that this extraordinary time can lead to useful life lessons for kids. “It’s going to be a more simplified time for children—they’re going to have time to be more creative and spend time with families,” Gray says. “This [pandemic] is something we can’t control, so we’re going to find ways to make the best of it.”
Rao agrees, adding that some behaviors, like proper handwashing, will be helpful tools for Sophie for the rest of her life.
“I believe in growth through adversity,” he says. “Plus having time with your family is rare. It’s a really nice thing.”