If you’re like me, your kids’ school has closed for the unforeseeable future because of the coronavirus—anywhere from two to eight weeks—and your employer has requested that you work from home, or maybe you already do.
I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for about 13 years and have done a mix of homeschooling, part-time work, and full-time work, while still raising my four kids.
Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years that might help as you try to be present for your kids while still completing your work-related tasks.
1. Prepare yourself.
If you haven’t had your kids home for long periods of time like this, and you have $50 to $100 or so to spare, I recommend trying to do some easy preparation, particularly also if your school has not provided any schoolwork or your child’s school is not doing e-learning.
Go to a store such as Target or Walmart—or even the dollar store if neither of those are nearby—and stock up on simple, versatile supplies: paper, markers, colored pencils, tape, paint, paintbrushes, coloring books, activity books, clay, Play-Doh, Moon Sand (which I prefer over Play-Doh), sidewalk chalk, Frisbees or balls, and supplies for cookies, bars (like Rice Krispies Treats), brownies, or cupcakes.
You will be amazed at how handy these basic supplies will be, and how much your kids can create with just a few things, and how a little money can go a long way in helping not just to occupy your kids so you can work, but also help them enjoy the days at home with you.
Don’t leave all these things out for them to see and do right away. Keep everything stored away and bring supplies out one at a time for set periods of time.
2. Try to retain structure and a routine.
If your kids are older, past the age of 10 or 12, you might be able to get away with just firing up your laptop and letting them entertain themselves with devices, reading, outdoor play, or limited time with friends (provided their parents agree and approve, of course).
But if you’ve got younger kids at home, this won’t work, tempting as it may be.
I recommend a kind of block-scheduling approach, just as you might do in your normal workday.
Wake up early and work for an hour or two before younger members of the family wake up. You’ll be surprised at what you can get done with a hot cup of coffee and two solid, quiet hours in your office or on your couch. (If you’re a night owl, you could work when the kids are asleep—or both if you really need to.)
When the kids finally wake up, dedicate an hour in the morning to breakfast, snuggling on the couch, reading, building Legos, or even taking a brisk walk, weather permitting.
I’ve found if you pay attention especially to the younger children who want it right away, they’re often quite satisfied, at least for a while, because that need has been met, and then they’ll play by themselves better later.
Set a timer for the rest of the day, and break up the day into chunks. When I first started writing, my only child at the time would often just build with blocks or play with trucks in the living room while I worked nearby.
Obviously, if you have older children, they can play with each other during this time—a suggested activity such building a fort, playing tag outside, or painting at the kitchen table—and that helps, too.
After 30 minutes or an hour, suggest another, different activity, and do this until snack or lunch times. You might be able to work while they’re occupied because short bursts of time set aside for one thing retains a child’s focus better than a lengthy activity. Try to stop yourself and enjoy meals with them if you can.
3. Go outside as much as possible.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have suggested staying away from places where crowds gather, and I assume that might even include outdoor or indoor playgrounds, there’s no reason kids can’t play outside in your backyard or at a state park, where there would be minimal interaction with others.
That’s where you pull out your sidewalk chalk, Frisbees, bikes, rollerblades, scooters, or even yard-work supplies. (As soon as it stops raining here, my oldest will be mowing our lawn.)
After a couple blocks of time doing games or artistic activities inside, if the weather cooperates, tell your kids you’re setting the timer for an hour and everyone must go outside and get fresh air and move around.
Your older kids, or kids who have a lot of screen time, will balk at this. I implore you: Do not give in to their whining! Make them go outside anyway, even if it makes you the bad guy.
When you must be housebound, it’s vital to make the kids move, so they use that pent-up energy and sleep better at night. They’ll also behave better, too.
Again, if your children are small, you can bring your phone and laptop, sit in the garage or on your front porch (or back patio), both for safety and so you are there if and when problems arise.
I do this often and find everyone is so much happier. If I take a break and play with them or take them on a walk, frankly, I feel better, too.
4. Homeschool if you can, but don’t stress about it.
If you’re worried about your kids’ lack of education during this time, or if you just want to occupy them in a productive way, here are a few tips. (I homeschooled for six years.)
I wouldn’t try to replicate school exactly, but you can certainly supplement your children’s education with things you probably already have around the house: Paper and pencils, activity books, reading books, and even smartphones, tablets, or computers can come in handy here.
Pick a couple of subjects a day to tackle. My advice is to work on subjects your kids already love and want to learn more about or improve at understanding. That way you won’t be going against their natural strengths.
You don’t have to try to do several (although you certainly can). For younger kids, you can print out supplemental math or spelling worksheets from the internet or let them use apps for things like sight words, addition, multiplication, and more—or even just math with dice, paper, and pencil.
If you have older children working on multiplication, this game—which only requires a deck of cards—is fun. I have found that if you have several kids, it’s easier for everyone to at least do the same subject at once, even if they are at different grade levels.
English might seem daunting, but it’s really quite simple. You can print out sight words for each grade here, and tell your younger children to copy them, or you can cut them out and play a game with them.
For my eldest boy, I used to stick them to the wall and have him shoot a Nerf gun at them. (Why not?) Tell your older children to read a portion of a book, poem, or essay, and explain it to a younger sibling or even write an essay about it. That helps with vocabulary and comprehension.
If you love literature, now might be the time to get a children’s version of a classic—“Moby Dick,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Treasure Island,” “Little Women,” or “Aesop’s Fables”—and read a small portion aloud to them each day at lunch or bedtime.
My eldest child is nearly 13 and still enjoys being read to, because I read to him so much when he was younger.
History and civics are probably the most fun to do, even from home. Pull up a YouTube video of a time in history, historical figure, battle, or major world event.
Watch the video and discuss it. Have your younger kids draw the person or event as they understand it, and the older kids watch the video, read about it online, and then explain it back to you or write an essay on it.
You could even just pick a person, event, or time frame to try to help your kids understand during the next month, through the History Channel and books you have at home.
Like the other activities, just “do school” for a block of time, and then, when it’s over, move on to something active and outside, or blast some upbeat music and tell them it’s finally time to do some much-needed chores.
It can be difficult to balance work and children at home, but you might also find that if you can retain some routine and balance work and play, it might be a really memorable, sweet time for you and your family.