Surviving (and Thriving) While Your Little Ones Are At Home, Too

Ideas, advice, and lists from an experienced work-at-home mom

Our kids often thrive on routine. But at the moment, our entire world seems to be on hold. Every schedule and activity our children are accustomed to has disappeared, and many parents are seeking to stay isolated at home, in an effort to protect their communities and loved ones.

This transition will be stressful for many—including our children. There are, first of all, a variety of emotional burdens the family is undergoing at present: parents are anxious, as they watch the world suffer around them. Children will naturally become anxious as they observe their parents’ stress, anxiety, or annoyance. 

But beyond these cognitive and emotional burdens, there are also many logistical pressures at this time. Children unused to 24/7 home time are likely to get restless. Parents who are used to having eight or more hours of uninterrupted work time are likely to feel frustrated with the demands and interruptions of their children. This season might lead to endless, round-the-clock Frozen 2 viewings. It might make it very hard for working parents to accomplish necessary tasks. 

Yet perhaps this time can teach us important lessons, and draw us closer together. The demands it places on us as parents can cause us to be annoyed, anxious, and angry—or it can give us timeless memories with our children, for as long as it lasts. 

I’ve worked from home with my little girls (ages four and one and a half) for years now. Things don’t always go smoothly—in fact, almost every day has hiccups, frustrations, and last-minute changes. But it’s also been delightful. And I’m hoping that this time will, despite fear and anxiety, still be meaningful for parents who are now home full-time with their kids. 

But before considering resources and ideas for the day to day, it’s important to address the aforementioned mental, emotional burdens that parents might feel right now. A child who knows what’s going on in the world might feel worried or fearful—and will therefore need the love, attention, and care of their parent. Hugs, words of comfort and affirmation, laughter and fun, will all be essential to their emotional and mental wellbeing (and to ours, as well). Let’s not let our to-do lists get in the way of offering that support to our children. 

If a child is very young and has no idea what’s going on, it is important to remember that they will not understand our worry or stress. They will not understand why we keep checking the news or Twitter. They will not understand why we are short with them for no reason. Every parent with very young children (myself included) will need to extend graciousness and normalcy to their little ones—and (if at all possible) minimize social media usage in order to assure our children that they are our first priority, and that they are deserving of our focus, our gaze, our time. They need to know that we love them, and they experience that through one-on-one time, through eye contact, through hugs, and through our smiles and words of encouragement.

In case it’s helpful, I wanted to share some resources that have been highly useful for my work-from-home life. Not because I’ve figured anything out—every day is different, and I often don’t meet my deadlines perfectly. The girls and I get frustrated at times, and I don’t always listen to them or their requests as well as I ought. But if there’s something in here that helps you get through the next few months, this piece will be well worth it.

So first, here are some assorted resources for music, books, podcasts, shows, and other sorts of time together that we have enjoyed:

Curricula

I am a big fan of the Charlotte Mason principle that children’s early years shouldn’t be over-structured, or over-filled with activities or school. They need time for independent play, for boredom and unscripted creativity, and especially for experience of nature and the outdoors. 

The only school I’m currently doing with my four-year-old is a bit of “morning time” activity: right now this consists of Bible reading and memorization, music, poetry, art, and a book or two read aloud.

We have been incorporating some readings and activities from The Peaceful Press’s Garden Guide, which has delightful books and activities for kids 2-5 (or thereabouts). The Peaceful Press has other unit study guides built around freshwater, oceans, farms, deserts, mountains, trees, and the night sky.

We’ve also utilized some activities and books from the Busy Toddler preschool curriculum (which take a bit more work and planning), and I’ve enjoyed book recommendations from Ambleside Online and Beautiful Feet Books.

Music

You can teach children to truly listen and catch things in music from a young age—with classical music, with musicals, and with their favorite Disney songs. Some things we talk about when we listen to music:

  • Is it soft, or loud?

  • Is it fast, or slow?

  • Is it high, or low?

  • Is it staccato (“hoppy”), or is it legato (“smooth”)?

  • Is it minor (“sad”-sounding), or major (“happy”-sounding)?

  • What instruments can you hear? (You can introduce your kids to the oboe, cello, violin, piano, trumpets, flute, clarinet, percussion—and so many more—through YouTube videos and other resources!)

Many delightful classical pieces tell a story—ballets like The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake (a bit tragic, but the music’s beautiful), orchestral pieces like Peter and the Wolf, and pieces of music with an interesting history—like Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, or Handel’s Messiah.

My girls love to dance to music, so I’ll often turn on their favorite music, and let them dance for an hour. It’s one of their favorite activities. Boys can get into it too, if you just turn it into a game—we love to play “freeze dance” (everybody freezes in place when the music’s paused). It’s a great way to get the wiggles out on a rainy day.

Podcasts and other listening

For Christian parents: we have really enjoyed the Truth Seekers podcast (a good resource for Bible stories for younger kids), and Steve Green’s Hide ‘Em In Your Heart songs (available on Spotify). Green’s songs were made in the 1990s, so they’re a bit old-fashioned, but I listened to them as a kid and know how well they stick in your mind—so I’ve shared them with my daughters, and have been happy to see how much they help with Bible verse memorization. 

Wow in the World is a really fun science podcast from NPR. My four-year-old doesn’t get all of it, but has fun listening to it, and it has a lot of interesting lessons and facts for parents, as well. 

The Little Stories for Tiny People podcast is a fun storytelling podcast for preschool-age children.

Poetry

  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’sGarden of Verses 

  • Nursery rhymes

  • A.A. Milne’s books of poetry

  • The Owl and the Pussy Cat, Edward Lear

  • Dr. Seuss books

  • Sandra Boynton books

Rhymes and poems teach rhythm, cadence, pattern, and beauty. They’re great for memorization, and the girls love reciting little nursery rhymes on our walks. 

Books

We read lots of Newbery and Caldecott award winners, and enjoy the book recommendations we find via curricula (listed above). We have lots of board books and Little Golden Books we’ve collected over the years, but these are some of our current favorites (especially for our older daughter):

We’ve also read Little House in the Big Woods (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) and The Phantom Tollbooth (by Norton Juster) with my oldest, and she really enjoyed them.

Math + Science

Baking and cooking, watching science videos, planting seeds, propagating new plants from our house plants, playing with Legos and blocks—all these activities and more tend to be the places where we discuss math and science at this age. Discussions of yeast, photosynthesis, addition and subtraction, bee hives, composting, and more fit into tangible experiences of the world. It’s fun! 

Outside Time

Little ones need outside time. They need to run hard and fast, dig in the dirt, soak up the sun—even get a little wet from the rain. They need to gather sticks and create forts, make mud pies, and collect bouquets of weeds for you to put on your kitchen counter. 

I would strongly encourage you—even during this time of coronavirus craziness, even if all you have is a tiny patch of backyard or porch space—to let your children get fresh air and sunshine. Even if it means going to the park in the wee hours of the morning, when no one’s about. Even if it means just opening windows and planting seeds inside! Make the outdoors, sunshine, and fresh air a daily part of your schedule. Help your children experience earth, sunshine, wind, and rain. It is essential for their mental, emotional, and physical health.

My mother-in-law, who homeschooled many children, highly recommends playing outside games like Duck Duck Goose and Freeze Tag. She suggested putting a bin of random objects outside (Tupperware, bottles, blocks, what-have-you), and then watching your kids figure out what to do with them. She also recommends putting together a fun obstacle course (something you can also do inside if the weather’s too nasty)!

TV Shows and movies

For those times when you need it (we all do!), here’s some of our favorite shows:

  • Puffin Rock is a delightful show about a family of puffins who care for each other. Una and Baba are great examples of filial care and affection, responsibility, kindness, sharing, creativity, and teamwork. The music is very easy on the ears, and the animation is gorgeous.

  • Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood is available to watch on Amazon Prime, and my daughters have loved it (just like I did as a kid). It doesn’t feel as overly stimulating as a lot of other kids’ shows.

  • Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is also a favorite, and the jingles have come in handy for potty training, handling anger, and other important life lessons.

  • PJ Maskshas been a fun one for my older child. She’s always inspired by Cat Boy, Gekko, Owlette, and their heroism.

  • In addition to all the usual Disney animated favorites (Frozen, Moana, Cinderella, Toy Story), The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins are available to watch on Disney Plus! The girls also love watching old classics like Singing in the Rain, Summer Stock, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Activities

  • Long bath times are a perfect way to entertain toddlers. Add lots of bubbles, toys, or colors. Let them eat popsicles while they soak. It can stretch on forever. 

  • Fill the sink with soapy water, throw in a bunch of cups and plastic bowls, and let them play. We often get lots of water on the floor, but it’s easy to mop up, and they will play in the sink for an hour or more.

  • Make a tent! It’s one of the most wondrous and exciting things you can do with your kids. It makes everything special. They can eat their snack in the tent, read books in the tent, or play “house” in the tent. It often leads to all-day-long fun on a rainy day.  

  • Nature walks are a delight (or even just going around the backyard and identifying plants). We bring a nature guide with us, or use an app on my phone that helps us figure out plants we don’t recognize. The girls pick ferns, flowers, and other things to bring home and press in a book. It’s fun to pull out the pressed plants in winter, and see how many plant names they still remember! 

Schedule

Finally, I wanted to offer our daily schedule to any parents who might find it useful. We all thrive on routine, but it can be difficult to find that when every day threatens to blur together at home. This is the structure we strive for (and abandon when necessary!) — 

  • I generally wake up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. This is my time to make coffee, check email, and accomplish as much as I can before the girls wake up.

  • My kids are allowed to come downstairs at or after 7 a.m. We have an alarm clock that turns green at 7 a.m., to assist in this endeavor. If they wake up early, they can read and play in their bedroom.

  • After 7 a.m., we do the girls’ “Morning ABC’s” together. We don’t always do them in order, but generally go over them all and make sure they’re all accomplished by 9 a.m.

    • Awake with a smile (something my dad always used to tell my siblings and I when we were little!)

    • Beds made, brush teeth and brush hair

    • Clothes on

    • Devotional time (reading the Bible)

    • Eat breakfast

    • Feed the dog

    • Go potty (useful for toddlers during potty training—other potential options for this letter could be gather up toys/school supplies, or give house plants a drink)

    • Help with dishes (putting away silverware or wiping down dishes in the sink with a rag, primarily)

  • We try to finish up all our chores by 9 a.m., and then do our “morning time” school activities: music, poetry, art, reading a book or two aloud, followed by outside time or independent play.

  • After lunch, we have a quick cleanup time and then both girls are in bed for quiet time. The four-year-old gets to pick out three books and a doll, paper doll, or puzzle to enjoy quietly on her bed. But she has to have quiet time, just like her little sister. She often (but not always) ends up falling asleep, too. This time—whether it lasts an hour, or two—is my work time. I make a cup of tea and devote as much time and attention to writing as I can.

  • When the girls’ quiet time is over, we will go outside, or they have independent play and reading time inside. They like helping prepare dinner, too—the one-and-a-half-year-old can peel garlic, pick the leaves off cilantro, or stir cornbread (with help). The four-year-old can measure ingredients, pour things, squeeze limes or lemons, stir things on the stovetop (with help), set the table, and more. They enjoy tasting things and giving me their opinions, and it’s been fun hearing the four-year-old pick out flavors and textures as she gets older.

  • After dinner, we have bath time, read something aloud, and get the girls tucked into bed. They’re in bed by 7:30. Which means I can work from that time till my own bedtime, if need be. 

In general, this schedule can give me anywhere from four to eight hours of work a day (depending on how early I wake up, how long they nap, et cetera). If my husband is home, we can divide the day into half—with me taking pre-nap child care and meals, and him taking post-nap child care and meals. But everybody benefits from the structure and routine, and the expectations they set. My kids don’t expect me to entertain them constantly all day, but they do expect to have some reading aloud time and fun time with Mommy and Daddy. They don’t always get intricate crafts, but they often will bake muffins, bread, or granola with me after our morning time. (And then we enjoy the fruits of our labor with a celebratory tea party!)

The schedule and method of our life keeps changing, getting tweaked as our girls get older and their developing personalities require different things. But we’ve discovered a lot of precious rituals and rhythms as time has gone on—and I hope you all will, too, during this fraught time.


Gracy Olmstead (@gracyolmstead) is a writer who contributes to TheNew York TimesThe American Conservative, The WeekThe Washington Post, and other publications. Sign up for her monthly newsletter, Granola, here.

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