In a previous incarnation, just before my first child was born, I left my job in the media and trained as a Montessori teacher. The plan was that I would be able to incorporate my work and home life without too much upheaval, and this proved to be true.
Three sons later, I returned to my writing role and began working on a freelance basis – with three children under the age of six at home with me.
So as parents up and down the country are facing, with trepidation, the prospect of at least two weeks at home with their children – indoors for much of the time and without the welcome distraction of playdates or playgrounds, as we are being advised to avoid these to slow the spread of coronavirus – I want to share with you some of the entertainment tricks I have used while working from home for the past 15 years.
Toddlers like feeling useful, so clear some cupboard space and fill it with your child’s plastic eating utensils, wooden spoons and an inexpensive, pot, pan and mixing bowl. Make sure it’s at child-level so they can access it at will, along with some pasta they can ‘cook’ with. Leave cloths, dustpan and brush within easy access so they can ‘help’ you clean and allow them to ‘wash’ clothes in a basin.
This age group has a keen eye for the smallest things, so if you are not self-isolating, a trip to the park, woods or beach will keep them amused for hours as they hunt out shells, bugs and other treasures. If you’re staying closer to home, the same can be done in the garden.
Another curious toddler interest is sorting stuff – laundry into piles, different coloured/shaped pasta into groups, toys into categories, cutlery drawer, shoes into pairs – so root out (or create) jumbles of items and get them to order it.
And when the TV needs to be turned on, you can't beat old favourites like Sesame Street and The Muppets and the more recent The Best of Toddler Fun Learning (all on You Tube).
Top tips for toddlers
- Allocate jobs
- Use educational TV
- Keep them active when indoors by having jumping, skipping, dancing sessions - it will tire them out and give you a bit of a workout too.
This age group is still wonderfully curious and aside from the usual baking activities, my guys also “helped” with dinner – with plastic utensils, they chopped and peeled, stirred and mashed. This not only kept them busy and by my side while I was cooking, but it also gave them a sense of achievement and the motivation to eat what they had prepared.
I would encourage everyone to relax the rules over the next few weeks and allow kids to spread out their playing space – setting up various worlds involving dinosaurs, soldiers, dolls, trucks, farm animals, whatever, can take hours and even if the actual game only lasts 30 minutes, trust me, they will spend forever setting the scene.
Dens in the living room or bedroom are always fun and once set up can be a magical place to bring books and treats.
Drawing pictures, or printing outlined images off the internet for colouring in are always good for keeping busy, and when you need a solid hour to finish some work, there are some great educational programmes on Netflix and You Tube such as The Magic School Bus and Ask the Storybots.
Top tips for ages four-six
- Making dens and forts
- Colouring in/creating worlds for their toys
- Help with meals
Bill Nye the Science Guy and Octonauts are good shows for this age group but of course there's only so much screen time they can and should have. I found that "nature/treasure hunts" were a big hit, and wrote lists of things to find in the garden, such as "2 long twigs, 4 daisies, 3 smooth stones" (Substitute words with drawings for the younger age group). This, armed with a "picnic" (some snacks) will keep them busy for ages.
If you haven’t got any outdoor space, get them to find different things around the house and bring to you for inspection (make sure it’s a long list).
The nature haul can be turned into an art project (outdoors if possible but with newspaper over the kitchen table, if not). Stones can be turned into ladybirds, twigs painted to make a display, flowers pressed and bugs photographed and returned to the wild.
And as with people of all ages, food is always a winner so spend time every day either baking, cooking dinner, or making something simple like this biscuit cake.
Top tips for ages seven-nine
- Set treasure hunts
- Get crafty
- Encourage reading
Tweens are a tough bunch as they are kids who think they’re older. They enjoy the best of both worlds – so get them involved in projects such preparing the evening meal (let them choose and follow recipes themselves), writing a diary or even writing a book and designing a cover. But also encourage them to use their imagination to put on a play or a show to be practiced and performed at the end of the day.
Twitter is proving to be a wonderful source of support in these strange times with people offering all sorts of help - Neven Maguire has offered to send out recipes to those who get in touch at @macneanhouse and artist @WillSliney has suggested an art challenge where kids drawings are sent to him and he shares them online at the end of each day. There are some fantastic children's drawings of Spiderman on his timeline from yesterday.
Another cool idea for this age-group is cards – whether Top Trumps, football, Pokémon, YU-GI-OH or LOL – they provide hours of fun and my three even made their own, drawing out their favourite, cutting to size and playing games.
I also set my kids challenges such as finding the meaning of difficult words by looking through dictionaries, playing language snap with homemade cards featuring Irish, French or Spanish words and their English equivalent.
Other craft ideas can be found online here and here.
Top tips for ages 10-12
- Arts and crafts activities
- Learn how to cook
- Set educational challenges
Teens often get a bad rap, but mostly they act out because they are bored or anxious – so make sure to talk to your teens about what is going on as they will all be on social media and between them could believe we are facing the apocalypse.
Turn confinement into positivity with a plan – they could declutter and organise clothes or games into piles for charity or recycling. Choose colours and paint their bedrooms or other rooms in the house, weed and plant a section of the garden or set up a window box to grow plants and herbs. Allow them to experiment with cooking the evening meal or teach you a thing or two about social media.
Set interesting projects for them – something educational, or creative. Let them make a home movie or record a song with lots of free online software. The author Sarah Webb is running just-for-fun writing workshops online via her Twitter account (@SarahWebb) all next week. Perhaps they could even plan a holiday online for when all this is over – give them a budget and let them plan travel, accommodation, activities for when you're there. Involve them, reassure them and don't treat them like children.
Top tips for teenagers
- Allocate jobs (either paid or unpaid).
- Suggest projects.
- Make plans - possible college choices, future holidays
We are living in extraordinary times and many are facing into the imposed confinement with dread – but we need to try and see it as a gift. Those of us with older children will realise how fast time flies, so use this time to have fun together, play cards, draw pictures, watch movies, make dens or dinosaur cities in the kitchen, read lots of books and go for walks where possible.
There will be days when it’s difficult to get things done, but as long as we plan in advance, get our kids to use their imagination and try to be patient with each other (time alone in bedrooms with books or music is a must for parents and children alike), we will get through it.
Talking to Children
While we want to protect our children from the worries of the outside world, this is simply not possible in the current situation, especially as children become older. Regular advice columnist John Sharry, founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology, has written a useful guide for parents on how to talk to children about coronavirus – and what to say.
And even when children and teenagers do understand what is going on, there is another step to being actively involved in fighting the spread of the virus. Here, Sharry writes about how explaining the message using concrete age-appropriate language that they understand can motivate them to do their part.
Children in the kitchen
Perhaps one opportunity to come from social isolating is the chance to allow children become more involved in preparing food for meal-times. A firm advocate of getting kids into the kitchen, Jolene Cox believes the key to better family health and well-being is as simple as a good old-fashioned, home-cooked meal.
Real food with simple ingredients that the whole family can sit around the table to enjoy. Needed now more than ever. Alongside advice on how to get started, here she has a recipe for Golden Italian Turkey Nuggets.
Another of her favourites is Traditional Carbonara, which can be made in 25 minutes flat, and doesn't involve any ingredients that are hard to find – even in the new world we find ourselves. Or how about helping the children to make a brioche French toast brunch or a retro jammy dodger biscuit?
Teaching and learning resources online
The bad news: parents have recently been thrown in the deep end – many trying to home-school their children while often still attempting to work from home.
Good luck with that.
The good news: There are loads of resources out there to meet the needs of children of all ages and stages – especially if you have adequate wifi.
For example, the major publishers of primary school books - including Edco, Gill Education and CJ Fallon – have made their online education resources for primary and secondary students available free of charge.
By the way, in coronavirus-related news, Nickelodean has launched a site to help kids understand covid-19. It has videos, tips and ideas – all free of charge. Some of the networks favourite characters can be seen doing relevant activities, such as SpongeBob practicing social distancing, the PAW Patrol puppies doing dance moves to promote exercise, or the Bubble Guppies showing children how to wash their hands properly.
There are also plenty of resources for secondary school students, including Protutor, which runs a series of free webinars on Leaving Cert accounting topics aimed at fifth and sixth years next week; Dublin Academy posts free-to-access classes on YouTube; and Studyclix, one of the most popular of Ireland's study websites (offering notes, videos and a forum for students preparing for the Junior and Leaving Cert).
Peter McGuire has put together a comprehensive guide to all the resources available here. and Carl O'Brien has advice from experts on how to home-school – what you need to know about timetables, rewards and parents' resources.
Of course, what is needed at the moment is fun games for families that can be done in a garden or livingroom. The good news is they exist. Go Noodle has movement and mindfulness videos created by child development experts and used widely by teachers. Super Troopers offers a health homework programme that encourages children and their families to live more active lifestyles. And there's always exergaming – exercise video games that disguise fitness routines in the form of role-playing, dancing or running from zombies.
Perfect for children who don’t want to leave the livingroom, and parents who don’t want their children – at the moment – to leave the livingroom.
Some other ideas
Fionnuala Fallon has lots of simple advice on how to get children interested in gardening. And if you don't have a big outdoor area to let them loose in, don't worry – gardening isn't all about the great outdoors, and there are plenty of houseplants that children will also have fun growing.
Turning back on the computer, Dublin Zoo has live webcams so you and the kids can take a virtual visit to the giraffes, zebras and rhinos on the African Savannah, waddle over to the penguins, or enjoy bathtime with the zoo's elephants.
Which should keep the children distracted for, well, at least 10 minutes.