Stuck at home with young kids because of the coronavirus? Here’s what to do — and not to do

Jackie Mader | Special To The Washington Post

With schools closed in most states because of the coronavirus and the length of those closures looking increasingly long, millions of parents find themselves juggling full-time jobs and full-time parenting. In many districts, students are following online learning programs. In other cases, students are learning from their parents, who have become unofficial teachers and launched home-schooling programs.

But for parents and caregivers of young children who can’t learn online, have shorter attention spans and need much more attention, the prospect of working and caring for children can seem daunting, if not impossible.

“It’s a really hard time to be a parent right now,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, who spoke as his own daughter was sitting through her first day of online learning. “I have so much empathy for what parents are going through.”

Here’s a look at research and advice from experts that may help parents navigate the next few weeks (or longer) with their young children.

What should I do at home with my young children?

The priority is to help children feel safe and “not absorb all the anxiety that we’re feeling,” Golin said. And while many parents are trying to find resources for home schooling, Golin said it’s important for parents to take pressure off themselves to provide a “traditional academic” experience for young children. In fact, it’s OK — even good — to just let kids play by themselves.

Golin said the first few days at home are important because you can set up a routine not centered around screens.

“We have this dichotomy often in our society that we have two choices, which is being on the floor playing with our young child or putting them in front of the screen,” Golin said. “This is a really wonderful time to remind parents of all the wonderful ways that young children can ... play by themselves without a screen. In fact, it’s really important that they do.”

One of the biggest concerns for young children during this time is figuring out a way to replace interaction that typically happens in preschool settings, Golin said. He suggested parents take turns reading books aloud for groups of children via video or a conferencing platform, and that parents focus on giving kids experiences, rather than structured academic lessons, because that’s how they learn best at this age.

Susan Friedman, senior director of publishing and professional learning at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, underscored the importance of a well-rounded experience while children are out of school.

“Are children exercising their bodies? Are they making art? Are they playing? Are they having conversation?” Friedman asked in an e-mail interview. “Those are important questions to ask right along with what kind of screen time.”

When it comes to providing activities and experiences for kids, it can be overwhelming to wade through the endless ideas available online. Several school districts, including the New York City Department of Education, have compiled activities and resources for children organized by grade level, including early childhood. Many museums offer virtual tours.

NAEYC has ideas for parents who want to create “centers” in their homes like those found in most preschool classrooms. However parents choose to structure their time, research shows kids thrive on routines, and regardless of how parents fill their child’s time at home, experts said they should aim to maintain a predictable schedule each day.

Is it bad if my kid is getting exponentially more screen time now?

Individual circumstances are going to vary, so if your child will be using a screen for a large part of the day, Golin said it’s important to remember best practices for choosing media content for young children. The most important things, Golin said, are that the content be age-appropriate, that it isn’t an “all-day thing,” and that the media you show has clear beginning and ending points.

“That is going to be better for kids than YouTube, for instance, which never ends,” Golin said.

Some experts say media use should be limited to educational content, especially for young children (one study specifically cautioned against using anything but PBS content). Friedman pointed to NAEYC’s position statement on technology and media in early childhood and suggested parents scrutinize the quality of content.

“The quality of what children watch on screens is more important than how much they watch,” Friedman wrote.

A video chat can be a great way for kids to stay in touch with friends and relatives and give kids a chance to socialize. You may even be able to enlist grandma to hold a daily story time or switch off with other parents to host a virtual circle time.

Vincent Costanza, chief academic officer for Teaching Strategies, which focuses on early education curriculum, assessment and professional development, said parents often hear mixed messages about technology. But there are times when technology can enhance relationships.

“Setting up those kinds of experiences where technology is used to connect with others are certainly appropriate and should be leveraged at this time,” Costanza said.

And when it comes to tablets and apps, parents should have clear expectations for what their child will take away from that screen time. Research shows that children under the age of 3 are less likely to learn from screens, so while giving your child a tablet may feel like you’re giving them an educational activity, it’s more entertainment than anything else in the early years.

If I’m going to use online resources, how do I tell if they’re good?

At Dandelion Montessori, a small private school in Somerville, Massachusetts, heads of school Micki Sausen and Lindy McGrail Younis came up with a plan to provide support to parents and give their young students — who range from nearly 3 years old to 6 years old — a semblance of normalcy.

Sausen and Younis spent hours collecting school materials and packing individual bags with activities for each of their 26 students. Each bag is different and includes activities and materials like Play-Doh, beads, puzzles, snap pea seeds and art supplies, tailored to what each student was working on before school closed. Bags were handed out to parents outside the school or delivered to parents at their homes.

The school’s teachers will do daily video check-ins with each student and their parents while school is closed, to sing songs, read a book and answer questions about school materials that were sent home.

“In this time of uncertainty, it’s just sort of supporting families and letting them know ‘You’ve got this, you can do this, it’s going to be okay and we’re here for you,’” Younis said. School officials are also considering hosting virtual play-dates if the closures continue.

Costanza said one of the best things a preschool program or school district can do at this time is to send home model schedules with recommendations for parents on how to replicate their child’s day in the classroom. Costanza said it’s also important for programs and districts to communicate with their families, especially to relay information on where parents can access meals and other essentials.

“This is an event that’s changing at least daily, if not much more quickly than that,” Costanza said. “Having an established communication structure in place I think is very important.”

This story about what to do with kids during coronavirus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.