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Activities to Keep the Kids Busy and Save your Sanity While Social Distancing

As many of our children have been displaced from their schools due to the coronavirus, the pressure is growing for American parents: What will the kids do all day? It’s one thing to entertain them all day on the weekends. It’s another when you have seven days a week to fill for an undetermined period of time.

One of the secrets that schools know very well is to make a routine. Kids are used to following a schedule, so drafting out a plan for the day will help everything fall into place. It’s a lot easier than you might think. Grab a pen, paper and actually map out how the days will look at home. The goal is to keep kids busy and learning while allowing you to get other things done too.

Where to start in setting a routine?

Start with their school routine. Break the day into small blocks much like school does with subjects. When are they used to having breakfast? Snack? Lunch? When is recess? If your child has assigned schoolwork, do they work best in the morning or afternoon? Use school as the structure and take into consideration what had been your child’s routine.

Dedicate time for play

Once you’ve planned out time for things like food and school assignments, you’re ready to fill in the rest of the day, and actually carving out time for your child to play is huge for kids. When a child is imagining, creating, building or inventing, they are doing some serious learning. In your new daily schedule, have a few 15 to 30 minute blocks (more or less time depending on your child’s age and play development) of dedicated child-led play. The more a child plays, the more they learn to play.

Schedule in some easy indoor activities

While you can just get out toys for unstructured play, kids also get excited when parents create some of the fun. Think of some fun, easy indoor activities can be a life saver. These activities do not need to be complicated or take hours to set up. As you plan out your schedule, think of places where an activity might be helpful to transition from one time block to the next, like after snack time or before dinner.

Here are some easy indoor activities perfect for breaking up a day:

  1. Toy-Washing BinLet your kids wash their plastic toys. Add tear-free bubbles, sponges, towels and other supplies.

  2. Trash Art – Find some recycled materials and let your kids paint them. Kids love painting random objects and making beautiful creations from them.

  3. Sticky Match-Up – Draw shapes, letters, numbers, words or math problems on sticky notes and hide them around the house for your child to find. Then have the child match them up on a “key” that hangs on the wall.

  4. Build a fort - Give your child a few pillows and a blanket, and challenge them to turn the couch into a fort. No child will turn down the chance to make a secret base—and they'll be much more likely to play independently once they're inside.

  5. Create a game box - Fill a box with things your child can play with alone—items like coloring books, playing cards, or easy puzzles. When you need to keep your kids busy, give them the box. While your child might resist a bit at first, the more you do it, the more they'll accept “game box time" as part of their routine.

Build in reading

Study after study shows the importance of reading to kids. Being home all day is a great chance to increase their reading habit. Put reading blocks into your new at-home routine. Fifteen to 20 minutes a day is a great place to start (remember, that’s total minutes, not all at once. Break it apart). Try structuring your reading blocks in a few different ways: parent reads aloud, child reads aloud (if the child can read), and family silent reading time. If your child wants to extend a reading period, don’t worry about messing up the schedule. There’s no such thing as too much reading, and you can always save a planned activity for the next day.

Go to recess

If it's possible, add in two or three recess times for your child to explore outside. Remember that recess time is a part of school life and kids are used to a little cold and a little rain. While there is no official guidance on how much time to spend outside these days, try choosing open spaces like parks over playgrounds, where the equipment isn’t necessarily the most hygienic. Or, if you have a backyard, let the kids run around there. Outdoor time has lots of benefits for kids – and a key one for you: If they burn off steam, they may be more tired and willing to go to sleep at night.

Make a screen time routine

If you choose to have screens available to your kids while school is closed, use them wisely.

To keep your kids from over-indulging on screens, make screen time predictable. Have a set time in the schedule so children know when to expect screen time (like while you make breakfast or before nap time) and for how long. Then, turn it off! Follow through when the scheduled time for screens is over, and don’t leave TV on as background noise. If the house feels too quiet, turn on some music instead. Outside of the scheduled time block, only use screens when you (the parent) chooses it because you need it. Save screens for big moments, like when you have a conference call or dinner prep isn’t going well. Try some of these helpful tools like:

Let them help you

If you're cooking or cleaning, let them assist you. Give them a job they can handle. For young kids, that might be stringing beans or setting the table. For older kids, that might be slicing vegetables, sweeping the house or taking out the recycling. Give your child a task, and make it a really big deal. If they think it's an important job, they likely won't complain about working on it independently.

Of course even with the most perfectly planned schedule, you will still have days when you just can’t muster the energy to come up with even the simplest activity and instead let them watch another episode of their favorite show. That’s O.K. too. Do what you need to do to get through that day. You’ll have your routine to go back to the next day. And the one after that, too.

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