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Tips for Pandemic-Weary Parents and Caregivers

How to support parents through yet another round of quarantine.

Key points

  • While parents navigate the latest COVID surge, they can structure low-cost activities to occupy their toddler and support development.
  • Caregivers and parents can focus on monitoring media content and experiment with audio-only options.
  • Self-care for caregivers is still the most important for regulating stress and providing nurturing caregiving.

This post was co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, and Rahil Briggs, Psy.D.

The new year is off to another roller-coaster start. The Omicron variant is spreading across the United States (and world) right now at an alarming rate and disrupting routines, again. If you work with parents and caregivers of babies and toddlers who cannot yet be vaccinated, they may be feeling nervous, and they are also likely overwhelmed, exhausted, and discouraged.

leungchopan/Shutterstock
Source: leungchopan/Shutterstock

Families are hunkering down for another winter of social distance and isolation. So, while many families know that it is best to practice screen sense with children under 3, it can be easier to let a toddler sit with a tablet for a few hours while unexpectedly home from their usual program. Typical limits may not be practical for those quarantining or working from home with little ones. Mental health practitioners and other providers who work with families with young children can offer tips for choosing media content and ideas for alternate activities.

It may be helpful for parents and caregivers to experiment with music or recorded stories as an alternative to screen time. Caregivers will also do well to create a safe space (in the Montessori world this is sometimes called a “yes” space) in which a baby can explore a variety of child-safe, mouth-able items such as silicone blocks and teethers, cloth books, or even kitchen items like measuring cups.

The following 10 suggestions for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), literacy, art, and imaginative play activities may help keep little ones occupied while still learning:

  1. Try different materials for stacking, rolling, and knocking over. For a child that will not be tempted to eat the corners of cardboard boxes, several small ones can be fun to play with, as can cardboard tubes and other non-choking “found” objects. If this can be set up in a “yes” space, even better.
  2. Offer sensory experiences. Sometimes a highchair tray can be engaging for a long time if it holds a puddle of cornstarch mixed into a paste with some water. Water, ice cubes, or a block or two of colored ice inside a gallon zip bag can be offered for an interesting sensory experience. If you can stay close enough to keep an eye out, other items like play dough are also great.
  3. Create mess-free art. While you have the gallon zip bags out, squirt a couple of dollops of tempera paint into one and tape it to the tray for an activity that mimics fingerpainting without any of the clean-up.
  4. Try sorting activities. Offering a toddler some chunky, brightly colored blocks (or other child-safe items) to sort into an ice cube tray or a clean egg carton can buy you some time and build pre-math skills such as counting, subitizing, and 1:1 correspondence.
  5. Send them on a “shape hunt.” Build a foundation for geometry by having a child “hunt” for as many things in the room, apartment, or house that are shaped like a circle, square, rectangle, or the harder-to-find triangle.
  6. Set up a pretend “office” (perhaps it should be pretend “remote work” at this point?). It might be surprising how long a toddler will play with a clipboard, a sticky note pad, a washable marker, and an old computer keyboard. Add to the role-play by giving them a “work” assignment. A similar idea is to offer a few non-breakable kitchen items and give a pretend “recipe.”
  7. Make board books a solo adventure. Giving a child a stack of books may keep them busy for a little while but adding a sticky note pad and asking them to flag every page with a car (or a child, certain animal, etc.) can increase the fun, and extend the activity time.
  8. Use paper tape for various fun. Paper tape (i.e., painter’s tape that you would use to protect trim and window frames) can be used to create roads on the floor, a low table, or a highchair tray. It can also be used to make designs on the wall—it doesn’t stick!—or to tape a paper towel tube to the wall to use as a funnel for dropping items through into a basket or pail, or onto a pillow.
  9. Try impromptu dress-up time. Even if caregivers don’t have a child-friendly stash of costume items kicking around, a quickly gathered collection of hats, scarves, aprons, or even just tea towels that can double as skirts or shawls can entertain for a good while.
  10. Set up a series of tasks as a “challenge.” Older toddlers can sometimes do several activities in a row if given the chance and this is a potentially exciting option when it’s offered as a challenge. For example, ask them to complete a floor puzzle, find four things that are round, and stack eight blocks in the corner of the room.

And despite this long list of tips, we know that nothing is ideal for those with young children right now. So as always, you can help by suggesting that parents and caregivers go easy on themselves and work to reduce their stress as much as possible.

No amount of self-care can mitigate the current situation caregivers are in, however, if they can identify and reduce stressors and create a plan to nurture themselves on a monthly, weekly, daily, and even hourly basis, it will help a great deal in building their capacity for resilience during this trying time.

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