As school closures continue to extend, parents are reevaluating how to make their time working from home - with toddlers as coworkers - more sustainable. Zahra Kassam of Monti Kids has some suggestions

By Alex Apatoff
April 10, 2020 06:12 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Zahra Kassam

It’s been roughly three weeks since school closures across much of the country due to the coronavirus pandemic forced parents – many of whom also now found themselves working from home – to have to figure out how to occupy their kids. Turns out, trying to provide enriching activities while simultaneously juggling work calls, emails and keeping up with the news, as well as not having access to places like playgrounds and museums, is … yep, about as challenging as it sounds. And many parents have gotten the news that closures will extend indefinitely – in many cases, until the end of the school year.

Each age group of kids has a unique set of challenges, but parents of toddlers in particular have been sending up SOS flags; it’s a particularly needy and physical age, plus the kids don’t have as much structured “school work” as older kids do. Even trying to get them to stay still for a Zoom call with their teachers feels impossible. So how can you keep them engaged without losing your mind?

Now that some time as passed and we’ve been able to give ourselves a break on the expectations (and acclimated to some of the chaos), it’s a good time to revisit ways to make sure you and your kid are getting the most out of your quarantined time together. Zahra Kassam, CEO of Monti Kids (which packages up Montessori-approved toys into age-appropriate deliveries) has some ideas for making this work for what looks like it may be the long haul. She answered our questions below.

Many parents saw those color-coded time charts and started to panic. How can we keep it manageable?
As you do the ultimate juggling act during these uncertain times, keep in mind that our days do not have to be perfect! Let’s collectively go easy on ourselves and our kids. I think the most important thing of all is taking care of our own mental and emotional health. If as parents, we find ways to stay calm, happy and positive, our children will feel safe and secure and that will make each day go more smoothly.

Keep managing your “weekday routine,” so kids expect the structure. It helps to loosely stick to a schedule. Many parents find it helpful to write the schedule out and post it in a visible place where they can refer to it throughout the day. For younger toddlers, photos outlining their day can be useful so they know what to expect and can become active participants in keeping on track!

How can parents who are not naturally good crafters/bakers/science experiment-directors take on all those cute ideas we’re seeing all over Facebook?
First of all, try to have fun! If you’re enjoying yourself, chances are your child will too. If you make mistakes, it will be fun to laugh about it together. It’s a wonderful thing for our kids to see us make mistakes too. They’ll see that they’re a part of life, we learn from them and try again. This will help your child to learn resilience and to develop a habit of trying new things with enthusiasm.

Many Montessori-based suggestions are slow and very hands-on. For parents balancing work with “school” now – how can you do both?
Focus on their play space. If it’s simple and accessible, your child can make choices without you being involved and can play independently with more focus. Start by choosing 6-8 toys or activities that your child loves and put all the rest away in a closet. You’ll immediately notice a difference in how they engage with a few good options.

Once a week, after your child goes to bed, spend some time rotating out toys that are not being used often with toys that were stored away. Your child will experience old toys as new again and they will learn from them in new ways. If you put out a tray with crayons and paper, even small changes like putting out colored paper or cutting the paper into an interesting shape can introduce some novelty that will get your child excited. Monti Kids‘ subscription program is great for introducing new toys that get kids engaged.

Credit: Courtesy Zahra Kassam

How do you foster independent play if you need to have your attention elsewhere?
Set timers! Set a boundary: “While we wait for the timer, I get to work on my work and you get to work on yours.” Let your child know that once the timer goes off, it will be time to read that book or color together as they wanted. If they want, they can even work next to you while they wait for the timer. Being consistent and also following through on your promise to take a break will allow for everyone to get more work done overall! Start with just a few minutes on the timer so your child builds up their capacity to wait. As they get used to the routine, you can progressively add more time to the timer.

What are realistic time blocks to entertain very young kids? Can my toddler really do a two-hour learning chunk?
This will all depend on your child. Usually children have their most productive times in the mornings, with their energy and patience draining throughout the day… not unlike us! Your child will need to build up to long periods of independent play at home if they are not used to it. Younger children can build up to 1 – 1.5 hours of independent play. Older children can build up to 2 – 3 hours.

You can schedule two blocks of independent play time throughout the day. Some children will play better independently if you are very close by doing your own work, while others will be more focused if you are supervising from farther away. You can fill the rest of the day with family walks, dance parties, arts and creative time, nap/rest time where they can quietly read books if they don’t want to sleep, and collaborative meal prep. Involving your children in the things you need to get done like housework, cooking and exercise will help them feel like they’ve had lots of time with you and can take some time to play independently.

I’m running out of creative ideas. What household items should I be enlisting for play?
Step stools are great for easy access to drinks of water, snacks, or hand-washing! Making the environment easily accessible to your child will make them more independent within it. Empowering them to prepare their own snack is a great activity and having some small, easy to open food containers that you can fill with their snack items helps with that. You can designate one low cupboard or drawer in the kitchen for your child’s small plates and cutlery and add the snack containers and a small pitcher with water and cups.

A sponge cut in half and a small squirt bottle can be used for cleaning windows, wiping tables and taking care of plants. Children love to help with these tasks and will get better at them over time if given the opportunity to learn! You’ll also want plenty of art supplies on hand. Construction paper, non-toxic paint or crayons and child-safe scissors can lead to an array of activities. When your child completes their project, they’ll be excited to find a spot to proudly display it in your home. We’ve got lots more ideas on Instagram.

Any fun ideas for Easter, considering visiting the bunny is definitely out?
Sure! Try:

  • Easter-Themed Obstacle Course – balance eggs on spoons in an obstacle course challenge. Toddlers can also go through the course hopping like a bunny, waddling like a chick or rolling like an egg! This is great gross motor work to get out some energy.
  • Easter-Themed Water Play – Do eggs sink or swim? Flowers? A great opportunity to get outside and work on their fine motor skills.
  • Sensorial Egg Matching – Fill pairs of plastic Easter eggs with different objects. Maybe rice or jelly beans etc. The goal is to pick things that will make different noises when your child shakes the eggs. Add them to a tray or bowl. Then have your child match pairs of eggs based on the sound.