'It's just like a Bluey episode': how to get through quarantine with a toddler
It doesn’t matter what children are playing, it’s all learning. But there are ways for parents to prepare for extended time in the home.
On ordinary days, when people aren’t talking about pandemics, I work from home while caring for my three-year-old daughter. I’ve had many years to refine my lifestyle as a freelancer but other parents may now find themselves thrown into the same situation, without preparation or choice.
If childcare centres close because of coronavirus, parents will have long, tiring days at home with their children. Playgroups and other social activities will be limited or non-existent, and parents may need to work from home.
This is already a reality for some people, who have chosen to stop sending their children to daycare, or to limit their reliance on vulnerable grandparents for babysitting.
So how can families adapt?
Amanda Abel, a paediatric psychologist in Melbourne, reminds parents: “This is not forever. While it is a very trying time, and the uncertainty around timeframes is proving unbearable for some, it can be really helpful to increase our sense of control as this is often how we manage our anxiety.”
Solid blocks of time are precious.
Abel’s strategies for taking control include speaking to employers about expected working hours. An evening shift could be an option, or working in bursts so there is time to give children undivided attention.
As a parent working from home, I am grateful my daughter still naps. Solid blocks of time are precious and should be used for work that requires deep focus. Not distractions like social media or television, and not housework. My daughter loves to fold laundry and cook dinner so we do these things together when she’s awake.
“Children learn through play”.
My previous career as an early childhood teacher taught me that opportunities for play and learning are everywhere. Parents don’t need expensive toys and structured activities to replicate an early learning program. In childcare centres, educators encourage children to discover what is interesting to them.
I know about six different recipes for playdough but I haven’t made any in months. My daughter prefers playing in my shoe cupboard. She made a “dog” by threading wooden beads on leftover Christmas ribbon. This is an activity she created herself that develops imagination and fine-motor skills.
Michelle Walsh, an early childhood trainer and consultant, says: “Children learn through play… whether it’s playing with Barbie dolls or toy cars, playing imaginary games, dressing up or being a dog. It doesn’t matter what they’re playing. They are learning.”
Walsh suggests parents prepare their homes for play first thing in the morning. “It could just mean putting puzzles on the floor or setting up some playing cards or a clipboard for drawing. Then let the day flow.”
Show children the passing of time.
To guide behaviour positively, distraction is an excellent technique for babies and toddlers. Abel says: “Set up some boxes with activities or materials in them that are relatively novel for the children… bring these out during important meeting times or for when you need to knuckle down and get some work done.”
Children closer to school age will have improved self-control and an understanding of boundaries and time. Abel suggests using a timer to show children the passing of time while you’re working, or creating a visual schedule for the day. “Set up some house rules with the kids so they know what the behavioural expectations are during this time.”
Give them information they can process.
After overhearing an adult conversation, my daughter said she was “sad because so many people were sick”. Talking to young children about Covid-19 isn’t easy but it cannot be avoided. Children are impacted by other people’s fears and dramatic changes to their normal routines.
Abel’s primary message to parents is to ensure “kids aren’t getting information that is developmentally inappropriate for them. Only give them the type and amount of information that they can process at their age.
“Most kids should really only know that there’s a virus going around which is like the flu, and for most of us it won’t be a big deal, but the community is working really hard to make sure that it doesn’t spread too much.”
I try not to let external stresses stop me from being patient with my daughter but it isn’t easy. I am much more tolerant of thrown toys and emotional meltdowns when there is toilet paper in my house. And now, more than ever, children need patience and support from the people they love.
“One of the most helpful things parents can do is contain their own anxieties around the situation… because as parents, our anxiety gets transferred to our kids,” Abel says.
When in doubt, turn to Bluey.
One of the best things for my mental health is sitting on the floor, playing with my daughter. I prefer to do other things in my downtime and I don’t always feel like it, trust me – but I know it benefits us both.
“I encourage eight minutes of play a day with your children,” Walsh says. “It’s just like a Bluey episode. For anyone who hasn’t seen a Bluey episode, I encourage you to watch one and then choose to play with your children for eight minutes a day. It’s not very long but it really enhances their learning.”