Oof. In the last few days, and especially yesterday, after I got real about how challenging this time has been with young children at home, I have heard from countless friends and Magpies who are entering into isolation or quarantine because of a positive COVID test or close contact exposure, and I have been sharing scattershot thoughts on things that helped me out during our 18-day quarantine, ten of which were spent isolated from my husband. Sharing some of these here in a more focused manner in case you’re in the same boat, and asking those of you who have been around the block to share additional insights in the comments! I know some of you are entering into a second or third quarantine, or solo-parenting, or parenting while recovering yourself, and it is a lot to handle.
Grace Is the Name of the Game.
First: give yourself a lot of grace. Repeat this word to yourself as often as you need it, sometimes in the dark cool of your pantry, with your eyes closed, while your children are screaming outside the door. This is a stressful and intense time. Patience is running thin, both in the immediate sense of the situation you’re in and in the more general sense that we are rounding the corner on a third year in the long shadow of COVID. You are tired on so many levels — but you are doing your best. You are doing great. We are all rooting for you!
When I say “give yourself grace,” here is what I mean on a functional level: tonight, once the children are tucked away and you can think clearly for a minute, reflect on any possible area of your life you can relax a bit. A helpful starting place for me: what moments were the most frustrating for you today? Was it meal times? Was it the long, unstructured stretch of time between afternoon nap and bedtime? Focus on what you can change or drop around those specific stressors. Maybe that means giving your children the same exact lunch for ten days in a row because a) you have everything on hand, b) it’s easy, and c) you know your children will eat it without complaint. So, OK! PB&Js for ten days straight. That’s just what it is. Maybe that means you bathe your children every three days instead of every night. Maybe that means you reallocate screen time so that it covers the majority of the time between nap and dinner. Etc. Focus on the pain points and find a bandaid that can help you through this stretch of time. For me, “giving myself grace” meant relinquishing my strong preference to complete tasks fully once begun. It was a mind frame shift that helped a lot.
A Loose Schedule Helps.
This is probably intuitive to most moms, but I found sticking to a loose schedule very helpful, not only in that my children knew what to expect, but in the sense that I found the day passed more quickly when I had little grooves to orient myself around. Our daily routine ran like this: breakfast, TV show while I’d clean up and get myself dressed/ready and set up for the day, get children dressed, 1-2 planned projects or activities (more on that below), “free play” (I hate that expression because my children never just miraculously dissipate into their own play when I want them to — I almost always need to prompt them, but will share ideas on that below), lunch, play outside for at least an hour, bath time, nap/screen time, another activity, “free play,” dinner, bed.
Having this pattern of to-dos helped me muscle through the long days — i.e., “if I make it to bath time, we’re just a hop skip and a jump away from a time to myself to write while they nap/watch iPad.” I imagined it sort of like rock climbing — I was hoisting myself up from groove to groove, and it was helpful to be able to see where those grooves lay.
I usually tried to think of 1-2 activities the night before. These not only occupied my children but afforded me the impression of order and diversified our mornings in particular. I shared a lengthy list of indoor activities for children here and sensory play ideas here, but the biggest hits during this most recent quarantine:
BAKING SODA + WHITE VINEGAR — I USUALLY GIVE THEM DROPPERS AND DYE THE VINEGAR DIFFERENT COLORS (PUTTING A LITTLE BIT IN EACH OF THE HOLES OF A MINI CUPCAKE TRAY) AND THEY GO WILD
SOAP FOAM PLAY — JUST ADD A LITTLE DISH SOAP TO WARM WATER AND BLEND WITH A FEW DROPS OF FOOD COLORING, THEN GIVE THEM A BUNCH OF BOWLS, SPOONS, LADLES, ETC…FOR SOME REASON THIS IS SO FUN TO MY CHILDREN!
SENSORY PLAY WITH TINY ANIMAL FIGURINES OR DINOSAURS — WE USED FAKE SNOW, DRIED BEANS, AND DYED RICE ON SEPARATE OCCASIONS DURING THIS QUARANTINE (ALL THE TOOLS WE USED IN THE PHOTO AT TOP OF THIS POST HERE)
BAKING PROJECTS OF ANY KIND — BUT THEY ESPECIALLY LOVED ROLLING OUT AND DECORATING SUGAR COOKIES (MY RECIPE HERE)
DECORATING BIG BOXES — YOU CAN MAKE THEM INTO PLANES, CARS, HOUSES, ETC
PULL OUT THE ENTIRE BOX OF CRAFT MATERIALS AND LET THEM MAKE WHATEVER THEY WANT — IF YOU’RE NOT STOCKED WITH SUPPLIES, THIS IS A GREAT (!) KIT TO BEGIN WITH AND WHAT I BOUGHT A YEAR AGO (TARGET ALSO HAS A SIMILAR ONE FOR LESS)
THIS IS NOT SO MUCH AN ACTIVITY, BUT BOTH MY CHILDREN ARE OBSESSED WITH MATCHBOX CARS AT THE MOMENT SO I’D TRY TO THINK OF NEW WAYS TO USE THEM…WE DID A “CAR WASH” (MIX A TINY BIT OF COCOA POWDER WITH WATER IN ONE BOWL — “MUD” — AND THEN LET THEM WASH THE CARS OFF IN A BOWL OF SUDSY WATER WITH A BRUSH), MADE ELABORATE ROADS USING MAGNATILES, EVEN TURNED JENGA BLOCKS INTO CAR GARAGES, ETC
THIS PLAY TAPE IS ALSO HELPFUL IF YOU HAVE CAR-OBSESSED LITTLES
PLAYING “MAD SCIENTIST” WITH THIS KIT — YOU CAN DO THIS WITH SOAP FOAM, IN THE BATHTUB, OR EVEN JUST WITH WATER DYED DIFFERENT COLORS…IF YOU’RE VERY ADVENTUROUS, YOU CAN HAVE A RANGE OF OTHER MATERIALS (VINEGARS, OILS, ETC)
OUTDOOR SCAVENGER HUNT — MY HUSBAND CREATED A REALLY CUTE CHRISTMAS-THEMED HUNT FOR A LONG WALK OUTSIDE…THINGS LIKE SANTA CLAUS, CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, ETC.
What I like about all of the activities above is that they’re open-ended. Sometimes you can prolong their engagement by introducing some new figurines halfway through, or adding a new color of soap foam ten minutes in, etc.
A few activities we purchased that were also helpful…
WATER DOODLE MAT — MY GIRLFRIEND SENT THIS TO US ON THE ADVICE OF ANOTHER MOM WHO’D JUST GOTTEN THROUGH QUARANTINE…IT WAS A BIG HIT AND I WAS SURPRISED AT HOW MUCH THE CHILDREN WANTED TO PLAY WITH THIS DAY AFTER DAY! BONUS: IT ONLY USES WATER SO MESS IS MINIMAL
MONDO LLAMA CRAFT KITS — WE DID SO MANY OF THESE, AND WERE GIFTED SEVERAL OF THESE FROM FRIENDS, TOO! THE KITS TEND TO USE STICKERS RATHER THAN GLUE WHICH IS FRANKLY A GODSEND
THESE PUFFY STICKERS — MY CHILDREN COULD PLAY WITH THESE FOR ETERNITIES
Two other activities I have lined up for a future: I bought these blank canvases for the children to paint. I feel like they’ll get such a kick out of a new medium (not just paper!) and then they can gift the canvas to someone — a neighbor, grandparent, our nanny, a teacher, etc. I also plan to roll this just-discovered activity out the next time I need it: give the children washable paint and let them “paint” their play dinosaurs. After, put everyone (including children and dinosaurs) into the bath to wash off. I borrowed this from The Busy Toddler (<<tons of other activities there)!
Seriously, baths were a godsend for me. I’d let them hang out in there until they were shriveled and prune-y, and they loved it. Great way to kill thirty or forty minutes, and all you have to do is — in the words of The Busy Toddler blog — “sit-er-vise.” (I.e., you can just sit on the side of the bath and relax for a minute). I tried to make this time special by making them big, dramatic bubble baths using these amazing pods and letting them bring in basically whatever toys they wanted to. I’ve heard moms have had success throwing duplos in the tub (they float!), but my children hated this for some reason. They did like playing with their tiny animal figurines, Barbies, and these magnetic foam bath-friendly blocks one of my girlfriends sent me during quarantine. They also love (!!!) when I spray shaving cream all over the wall (you need the classic foam stuff, like Barbosol — not the gel we usually use) and they just draw/make a mess/etc. We have also done these colored foams before, which are also great, but frankly — you can get Barbosol for $2 and call it a day. I have this filed away in my surprise closet in case of emergency in the future, and there are even more fun bath toys here.
I gave my children a bath right after an hour of outdoor activity, before nap time. I figured they weren’t likely to get much dirtier later in the day, and it was nice to clean up after traipsing through leaves and dirt. I also personally find bath time really exhausting at the very end of the day. It’s one more thing to tackle, one more series of negotiations to launch into. So it was just simpler to give them a bath around 2 PM, then put my son down for a nap.
Car Rides Can Be an Activity.
I learned this a little late, but car rides can be an excellent way to kill some time, take in some new scenery, and keep your children separate from one another. You can wave at grandparents/family from afar, too. Right now is a convenient time for this “activity” because you can mask the excursion under the guise of “looking for cool Christmas decorations in our neighborhood!” Maybe there are neighborhoods in your area that go all out with lights and decor — a fun excuse for a longer drive. It always made me feel restored to just get out of dodge for a minute.
We use an Advent calendar similar to this and tie a little surprise for the children onto each day. Our surprises are things like a pack of stickers or a piece of chocolate or a new Matchbox car or a mini puzzle. Never have I been more grateful for this practice than during quarantine! It was a great, exciting way to start the day and the children usually launched right into whatever the surprise for the day was, giving me time to make breakfast. We’re now nearing the end of Advent, but it occurred to me that you could do something similar for your quarantine. I think the visual would also be helpful to children who might be confused about the new routine and the length of quarantine. You could get a piece of cardboard and write the numbers in a row (i.e., 1-10 or 1-14, depending on how long you’re stuck inside) and then clip a little surprise on for each day of quarantine with a clothespin or even just tape a note under each day with instructions on where to find the surprise in the house. (I also did that — sometimes if the gift was larger, I’d tuck a scroll into the appointed slot for the day, and they’d have to follow a clue to find out where the surprise was hidden. Another way to kill time. Bonus with this method: you don’t have to have all the toys/surprises lined up on day 1. You can just write a note the night before.)
Seeding Play Time.
I’m going to be honest: my children are not great at playing on their own. I know there are antidotes to this and am working on it, but in the near-term, I did a couple of things to buy myself little pockets of time to make lunch, tidy the house, etc:
1 // I spent one morning organizing, re-grouping, and putting in bins or zippered pouches all the toys in the play room. I realized it was fun for them to see, for example, all of the play food together in one bin. This prompted them to set up a restaurant, an “indoor lemonade stand,” etc. Sometimes just seeing toy sets all together, presented in a tidy way, invites rediscovery.
2 // I occasionally have the foresight to put toys “away” in a closet to bring out in emergency situations. I was so happy I’d done this — I was able to bring down a couple of toy sets they’d not seen in awhile and they were thrilled. They especially loved this NYC set (which I’d had up in the closet for a few months) and Magnatiles, which they’ve always had access to, but for some reason found much more exciting when brought down to the family room versus kept in the play room.
3 // Related: move toys around! I simply dragged mini’s big Maileg house out into the middle of the playroom and organized all her little mice and accessories and she immediately wanted to play with them. Similarly, I shifted where various toys were kept in the play room and in their bedrooms and found them immediately re-engaged. I think there’s something appealing about finding a whole bucket of matchbox cars waiting for you in the middle of your room. You’re basically remarketing your children’s toys to them!
4 // When all else fails and I really needed a minute to finish a call with the doctor or a dinner or what have you, I kept an “in case of emergency” stash of surprises — mainly matchbox cars, sticker books, and little cheap grocery store type toys. The novelty effect can be helpful when in a pinch.
Arrange a Puzzle / Activity Swap with Friends.
One of the greatest boons during our time at home was having a neighbor who dropped off a big crate of puzzles, coloring books, sticker books, and random craft supplies for us to borrow. The children were ecstatic and could not have cared less that half the pages were colored in! It was so fun for them. I paid it forward just a week later by dropping off a bunch of our puzzles, activities, etc at another neighbor’s going through a similar situation.
My Mom’s Advice: Make Them Help.
My mom — true to her Montessori teacher training — suggested I engage the children in every household chore and activity I undertook. If I’m sweeping, they sweep. If I’m setting the table, they carry out forks and napkins. If I’m preparing dinner, they stir or at least stand on stools and help wherever possible. I was surprised at how well this worked — when I had the patience for it. I found I had to be in the right headspace for it, and that usually happened in the morning, so I usually engaged the children in this way during breakfast and lunch in particular. They loved helping me make pancakes, mini loved making her own sandwiches, and Hill enjoyed plucking each grape off the vine to put on his own plate. They also really (!) enjoy emptying the dishwasher (plastic items only), unloading groceries, and scooping out Tilly’s dog food. This is great advice not only for quarantine!
As I mentioned here, I tried to lean into whatever felt good and rewarding at the end of these long days: a long soak in the tub, face masks, a marathon of chick flicks, a good bottle of champagne just because, Shake Shack on china, new pajamas or slippers, etc. It felt good to have something to look forward to at the end of a long day. And, frankly, you earned it!
If You Want to Support a Friend Parenting in Quarantine/Isolation.
If you have a loved one/friend/neighbor going through a quarantine or isolation period with small children, I found that the greatest gift and support was frequent check-ins. I leaned majorly into my close friends during this time. Knowing they were thinking of me and cheering me on made me feel less alone. We were also the grateful recipients of many meals and other deliveries that made life so, so much easier — we had friends/neighbors arrange dinner deliveries via UberEats/Doordash, drop off homemade lasagna, deliver groceries for easy-to-prepare-at-home meals (from Italian Store, if you’re local — you can also find stuff like this at Vace in NW DC/Bethesda). My parents-in-law brought by big deliveries of fresh fruit twice, which was such a tremendously helpful gift — my children are fruit flies and could eat fruit all day. There was something spiriting about having a fridge stocked with berries, grapes, clementines, apples, bananas, pineapple, melon! We also had friends drop off wine and Cocchi Americano (an Italian aperitif) — always welcome in these parts. Finally, small gifts/activities for the children (even, as mentioned above, lending puzzles!) was SO helpful. I would try to mete the gifts out over the course of the quarantine and save things for when I needed them. My mom sent a couple of boxes via Amazon with stickers and lacing activities, another friend sent the doodle mat, another sent Playmobil set and some little Christmas crafts, and yet another sent blocks! I felt so loved.
P.S. Cute children’s finds.
P.P.S. If you have a dinosaur-loving little: you are in luck.
P.P.P.S. My daughter has a forbearance that far outstrips my own. This post, and the generous, big-hearted, empathetic comments on it, make me cry on a regular basis.