Mia Pritts is the Head of Early Care and Education at Wonderschool. She lives in northern California with her husband and two young children, and is in the process of figuring out how to work from home during the time of Covid-19 and Shelter in Place orders.
As we make our way through week 3 of Shelter-in-Place due to Covid-19 and wrap our collective minds around 5+ more weeks of this, I’ve been reflecting on working at home with small kids who are also at home. I’ve also been thinking about how challenging it is to be home all day every day with small kids in general when you can’t go anywhere, working or not, and perhaps even more overwhelming if you just lost your job on top of everything else.
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My main thought is, this is SO HARD. Even with a spouse who’s also here 24/7, we are having a time of it. We both have full time jobs, and also have two pretty young children – a six year old girl who’s in kindergarten, and a one and a half year old boy. We’ve been experimenting with different strategies to create some level of normalcy at home and in work, knowing full well that nothing is normal right now.
As someone who has spent the past 20+ years working in early care and education, I know wholly that young children, and children under age 5 in particular, need constant supervision, interaction, and care. So how to make this all work?
A few key things:
- Go easy on yourself. No one is expecting you to pull off the impossible (being 100% present at work + 100% present for your kids, 100% of the time). Everyone with kids is in this same boat so don’t be harder on yourself than you would be on someone else in this situation.
- Go easy on your kids. If they’re used to being in childcare or school, they’ve lost their community and routine, and don’t have the cognitive skills to understand why this is all happening. My toddler thinks every day is the greatest day he’s ever seen, but my kindergartener, while taking things in stride overall, has moments of obvious loneliness, sadness, frustration, and anger. I feel very helpless in those moments to do anything but love her and let her process her emotions.
- Kids learn through experiences. Through playing, through doing, talking, reading, singing. They learn just through the sheer joy of being alive and experiencing the world around them. You don’t need to come up with intricate learning experiences right now, you just need to keep them busy enough so that you can all maintain your sanity.
Thoughts on working:
My husband and I have tried, with varying luck depending on the day, to take shifts where one person gets to work uninterrupted for a chunk of time and then we switch. We also compare schedules daily to try and avoid having meetings at the same time. Lastly, we rely on a good chunk of time in the afternoon (nap time for the toddler, quiet time for the 6 year old) to give us focus time, time for important meetings, and time to do more than small tasks. We are also already used to working at night after the kids go to bed. None of this is ideal per se, but most days it tends to work out overall.
My colleague shared this screenshot of me during a recent Zoom meeting. Good times.
But to be really honest, I still hope against all hope that when I’m on kid duty myself, I can grab moments here and there to answer a few messages or attend a meeting. Probably unsurprisingly, my stolen moments have resulted in my daughter painting my son (I knew it was too quiet), my toddler tagging several of our walls with blue crayon (always blue!), and my toddler finding a container of Vaseline and applying it liberally to his entire face. That last one happened with both my husband and myself in the same room as him, and we’re still not sure exactly how.
They’ve also gotten quite comfortable with joining me on Zoom meetings, which sometimes works great and other times results in antics, crying, lack of focus, and additional stress. My husband and I (and our colleagues) are all getting used to shrieks in the background or weird, out of context comments interjected into the thought you’re trying to share out loud. You win some and you lose some, you know?
Thoughts on the kids:
Attempting to keep them engaged in activities that are safe and fun, I’ve gone back to some of my old preschool teacher roots. Following a daily schedule (beyond meal times and nap time) has proven too much while also trying to manage work and meetings; I quickly abandoned that strategy as it was making things more stressful rather than less. There are things I can do though, to help our day flow.
In the evening after they’re in bed, I set out 3 or so “playscapes” or “play invitations” that I think will catch their attention the next day. While they aren’t guaranteed to engage the kids without effort and engagement on the part of us parents, they can help direct the energy of the kids into things they might otherwise not play with (ever seen a toddler take laps around your house without actually stopping to play with anything?)
Creating an artist’s palette.
- Play kitchen: currently resides in our toddler’s bedroom but periodically I bring play food, utensils, plates and cups out into our main play area and set up at a kid-size table. Add a small notebook and pencil and you have yourself a restaurant.
- Art: we’ve moved our easel from one bedroom to another, to our play area, and outside. Doing a familiar activity in a new area and under new conditions can bring a deeper level of interest and engagement. We’ve also been using different sized paintbrushes, paint rollers, q-tips, feathers, pom poms, and corks.
- Magnatiles, wooden blocks, bristle blocks, fabric blocks: set out a small amount, add animals or dolls, or any other figures, or balls, or any other unrelated materials you can think of. Let your child take it from there. Try putting them in a new or unexpected place: my 18-month old kept himself occupied for 10-15 minutes at a time, multiple times per day for 2 days, exploring bristle blocks after I moved them into our kitchen.
- “Real” items from around the house such as kitchen utensils, measuring cups and spoons, or tongs: you can add other common items for scooping, pouring, classifying…the sky is the limit and there’s no right or wrong way to use these materials.
Tongs + cotton balls. Great for fine motor development, cause + effect, and perseverance.
- Books: stand up several books (a natural invitation for a child) on your floor in a cozy area. Consider adding a throw pillow and a blanket, and let your child navigate the books him/herself. Now that our kindergartener is starting to read, we can get 10 or so minutes to start lunch or dinner while she reads to her brother.
- Outside activities: my colleagues are now used to seeing me attend video calls from our yard, while my kids dig and scoop and jump and paint and draw with chalk. We’ve been putting different items into our water table, and our current filler of pebbles plus tiny terra cotta pots have provided literal hours of enjoyment for both kids. Our 6 year old also does outdoor journaling as part of her distance-learning school curriculum.
Fresh air, a little space from one other, and painting. Delightful.
- Cooking projects: beyond being a great hands on way to learn about math, science, cause and effect, patience, turn-taking, various motor skills, kids LOVE to eat things they helped make. Our 6 year old often helps chop fruits or veggies; our toddler loves to stir and mix and would happily play at the kitchen sink all day if I would let him. I have let go of a lot of my previous angst over spills, flour flinging out of the bowl, or other messes because honestly we aren’t in a hurry right now and our creations don’t need to be perfect.
- Use the technology tools you have: FaceTime or Marco Polo with family or friends, a virtual circle time being offered by your child’s teacher or care provider, some “passive” screen time for kids over the age of two, an activity app for your preschooler. Learn more about “good” screen time and young children here.
I’m also excited to share this new resource from Wonderschool for parents to use at home with their children. This resource focuses on children ages 0-5, but can be scaled up if you have older children at home.
We know that everyone has been put into a new, uncomfortable, unknown and unpredictable time with Covid-19 and shelter in place orders across the country. We also know that we can all find new ways to not only make it through this time, but find unexpected ways to thrive and grow. Will you be able to attend a video meeting without a glance in your small counterpart’s direction? Unlikely! But a little bit of prep work combined with keeping your expectations realistic can result in a great deal of satisfaction all around, and you may even be able to respond to a few emails here and there. Hang in there, everyone! We’ve got this.