To say these are uncertain times is probably the most overused, but understated, way to describe our current situation. After facing a summer with fewer options for kids due to the pandemic, many families are now heading into the fall with the major challenge of managing kids who are learning virtually while parents are working remotely.
What’s a parent to do? How do you wrestle with keeping kids engaged and entertained while working from home? My husband and I have both been working remotely full-time since March with four kids (ages four to eight) at home. We have some great tips that might be helpful when working from home once in a while, part-time, full-time, or in the future.
Create an office space at home.
Make sure you have an office set-up in your home, if possible. The first week I worked remotely, I claimed the dining room table as my primary work space, and it was a disaster. I was way too open for business in the eyes of my kids because they could easily see me in our mostly open floor plan. That first weekend, we relocated a small desk to a nook in my bedroom to serve as my office. When the door is open, the kids can come in, but they do so less often because they aren’t seeing me all the time. That old phrase “out of sight, out of mind” applies! If the door is closed, it means Mommy is on a call, and they need to wait unless it’s an emergency. My husband worked from home long before the pandemic and has a more official office set-up, but he also uses the open- or closed-door policy. It has helped my kids learn the meaning of an emergency (you’re bleeding or have had a bathroom accident) versus what can wait (you’re out of pretzels or can’t reach a board game) until one of us pops out to check in with them.
Create self-serve food options.
Pack lunches and snacks as you would for school at least a few days a week. This tip also stems from that first week of working remotely when it seemed like our kitchen was a 24-hour diner. With four kids, the requests for snacks seemed never-ending. We had to figure out a solution. Now, we have breakfast as a family, but then pack bento boxes and place them at the kids’ seats in the dining room along with a water bottle. It not only frees me from getting snacks for four kids all day long, but it also gives the kids a sense of normalcy and independence. We pack enough that it can also be lunch if need be. We also repurposed a low drawer in our kitchen as a snack drawer, so they can supplement throughout the day by selecting food they can easily reach.
Explore support options for your family.
The spring gave most parents a taste of remote learning, but it’s clear that virtual learning this fall will be on a stricter schedule with required attendance and assignments. The mandatory nature of K-12 remote learning will most certainly require families to consider options for support that are right for them.
I recently watched an interview with a pediatrician who said “Whatever option you pick, it’s the right option.” That resonated with me. Every family will need to secure a strategy that works best for them. In fact, there are Facebook groups and online communities popping up to connect families on this topic. Here are some of the options that my family and other families we know are exploring:
• Organizing pods or co-ops where a group of parents rotate handling virtual learning with a set of families who agree to rules around learning and the pandemic. In some cases, they are hiring outside help, but in others, the families are agreeing to manage a learning schedule for each other.
• Hiring someone to come to your house to help with teaching and childcare, anywhere from a few hours a week to more full-time. This could be a college student taking a gap year, a professional caregiver, a tutor, a neighbor, or an empty-nester friend. Agreements and expectations on pandemic safety measures are key to making this option work.
• Homeschooling when the virtual learning options outlined in public and private schools do not meet a family’s needs. This option might help you regain control over flexibility.
• Exploring options with community partners, especially for families where both parents work full-time outside of the home, or there are financial or access barriers. Local school systems have announced they are securing many options with community partners to assist with facilitating virtual learning for families who need options.
Rotate toys or invest in a few new ones.
Even on a stricter school schedule, it won’t be all learning all the time. The school day wraps up long before the work-day ends, and keeping kids entertained will be key. Shortly after I realized we were all going to be at home for the foreseeable future, I audited toys throughout our house and stored a large chunk of them in our attic. This allowed my kids to better see a lot of the toys they hadn’t played with in a while, and later it was a treat to swap out stuff every few weeks. I also used Facebook Marketplace to purchase a few inexpensive “newsed” (new to us but used) items from other local families. That, plus an Amazon cart of some inexpensive new puzzles and games, set my kids up to stay occupied during the day when not learning. We also relocated some of our coloring books and other art supplies to an area they could access easily, so the kids could pull out what they wanted during the day.
Cut yourself some slack on screen time.
This tip may be a controversial one, but in times like these, you have to find areas to give yourself grace. Our family has been really relaxed about screen time with some parameters. We try to limit mindless binge-watching – like videos of people playing Minecraft on YouTube that my oldest son could watch for twelve hours straight — and encourage educational shows all our kids enjoy, like a cartoon focused on math or even virtual field trips to the Arctic to see polar bears. My kids have tablets with parental controls, so we can allow unlimited books, but limit random videos or games.
I hope you find one or more of these tips useful for your family. Also remember it’s important to take it easy on yourself and your kids through this trying time. We all have to stay patient and flexible, and remember that this is a temporary, but necessary, arrangement. Being worried and not feeling adequate are completely normal feelings, but we can all consider options that are best for our families and support each other as we embrace our new normal.