Author Archives: Janelle Durham

About Janelle Durham

I teach Discovery Science Lab and Family Inventors' Lab, STE(A)M enrichment classes in Bellevue, Washington for ages 3 - 9. I am also a parent educator for Bellevue College, a childbirth educator for Parent Trust for Washington Children, former program designer for PEPS - the Program for Early Parent Support, a social worker, and mother of 3 kids - age 26, 22, and 9.)

Screen Time in Coronavirus Time

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So, you’ve all heard the cautions about too much screen time. For example, the 2016 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which talks of risks like obesity, sleep challenges, exposure to inappropriate content and more. We’ve worried about how much screen time was too much.

And then… covid-19 came. And for most kids, screen time began to fill way more hours than in life before coronavirus.

We have a 9 year old and he spends so many hours on screen now: 2 – 3 hours a day on school work; teleconferences for school, for Sunday school, for appointments with his psychologist; Skype calls with his siblings and grandparents who we can’t see in person; playdates on Zoom; Wii sports on rainy days; ebooks since the library is closed, and a couple family movie nights a week. Plus, his reward for completing his day’s school work is… yep, you guessed it… a little screen time playing Pokemon or Minecraft.

It’s more screen time than we could have previously imagined. It’s certainly not optimal for development. But it is the current reality for many of us. So, rather than talking about “just say no to screen time”, I think we need to take more of a harm-reduction approach.

So, we’ll look first at how to keep young eyes and young bodies healthy while using screens, then we’ll take pointers from this approach, from the Media Policy Project:

We argue that this longheld focus on the quantity of digital media use is now obsolete, and that parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).

Here’s some tips, collated from lots of sources:

Improve “Screen Hygiene” During Use

For their eyes:

  • Screens should be 18 – 24 inches from eyes
  • Use screens in locations with good lighting without a lot of glare (or consider a matte screen filter)
  • Adjust brightness and contrast for comfort
  • Consider night mode or blue shade mode on devices after about 7 pm to shut out the blue light which can disrupt sleep
  • Remind your child to blink now and then to avoid dry eyes and eye strain
  • 20-20-20 breaks: Set a timer – every 20 minutes, they should look at something 20’ away for 20 seconds (plus spend some time outdoors every day, looking at a far distance)

For their body:

  • Use good posture – typical advice is to sit so there’s a 90 degree angle at your ankles, your knees, and your hips, and that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle as your hands rest on the keyboard. Start with that advice, but then adjust as needed for your child’s personal comfort.
  • Choose good furniture – if you don’t have furniture that fits your child for their screen use, perhaps look for inexpensive options to help their posture
  • Vary seating choices – if possible, have multiple work stations so they’re not putting weight on exactly the same parts of their body all day long every day, or have an exercise ball to sit on, or a standing-desk station
  • Stretch breaks – encourage your child to take breaks between activities… at the end of a chapter, after finishing a school assignment, every 20 minutes, whatever “signposts” make sense; dance breaks are also great (try gonoodle.com)

Context Matters

Think about when, where and how screens are being used. Establish daily routines. Make sure you’re clear on when and where screens can be used, and when and where they’re limited or off-limits.

Take Breaks from Screens

Try to create some screen-free times in your day and in your week.

  • No screens at mealtimes? Many families declare the table to be a screen free zone so you have a chance to connect as a family and practice social skills and casual conversation. (Also, screen use during meals is strongly associated with obesity.)
  • Screen free days? I know several families who declare one day a week (often a Saturday or Sunday) to be screen-free.
  • Consider screen curfews: the light from screen media and the high stimulation caused by screens can delay sleep onset, and shorten sleep duration (source). Avoid screens right before bedtime.
  • Consider no screens in the bedroom: even if they’re “just charging”, they can buzz or light up as notifications come in, and this can disrupt sleep, and tempt your child to return to the screen at any hour of the night.
  • Be sure to balance screen time with physical activity, and with social interaction between members of the household.
  • Be sure to include some time every day outdoors – even if the weather is dreadful. Do choose outdoor areas that are less populated, rather than crowded parks, so it’s easy to maintain social distancing.
    • When we are indoors and using screens, we’re triggering our sympathetic nervous system – adrenaline responses keep us intensely focused, which is helpful for work, but exhausting to our bodies.
    • When we are outdoors, we shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is about conserving energy while the body is at rest, so the body and mind can heal itself. After spending just a few minutes in nature, we have lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels.
    • Read more about the benefits of outdoor time.

Content Matters

Not all screen time is created equal. Some is helpful and beneficial, especially in this time of social isolation. Screens offer opportunities for learning, connection, adventure, and entertainment.

Some screen time is less helpful. Let’s think about some categories of screen use, and for each, figure out how to increase the benefits, and reduce the downsides.

  • Social time with friends and family on screens – Skype, Facetime, etc.
    • Connection Matters. I believe that when we are physically distant, having interactive conversations with others, even if it’s on a screen, is truly essential for our mental health and for a child’s developing social skills.
    • If you as a parent need a break during your time home 24-7 with a child, this social screen time with someone else can offer that to you. Our 26 year old son “babysits” our 9 year old over a Skype call while my husband and I have a date night at home.
    • For young children, think about how to make it as interactive as you can. For little ones, it helps to add a physical component – have your child show grandma a favorite toy – grandma can show your child the steps they’re doing as they cook a meal. It may be easier for your child to pay attention if someone is reading them a book rather than trying to engage them in a conversation. (Note for those who might not have kid books at home: on YouTube, you can find LOTS of great kid book read-alouds – I share my screen on Zoom and show the video to a child with the sound muted and I read the words.)
    • For older kids, try playing games together online: charades? hangman? There’s lots of online gaming platforms, like Jackbox games, kahoot.it, Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles, and more.
    • If you want a break away from the screen, consider also trying phone calls while going for a walk.
  • School work on screens – lots of school work is now online
    • Think about whether any of it can be physical work. For example, is there anywhere you can print a worksheet and have your child write on it with a pencil rather than using a stylus on a screen? If the math book is showing pictures of blocks, can you pull out real blocks? Instead of writing a paper on the computer, can they hand-write it, scan it, and email it in?
    • For younger children, kindergarten through second grade, you may want to ask their teacher if you can opt out of some of the online learning and instead do hands-on learning at home.
    • Have your child talk to you (or a family member or friend) about the work they’ve done – that helps move it off the screen and into their interactive brain.
  • TV, Movies, Videos
    • Ask yourself: Could you find books or audio books or podcasts that engage them as much in stories? (My son listens to story podcasts as he builds Lego.)
    • Can you watch together and make it a social activity instead of them watching alone? Or could they watch with a friend or family member using Zoom or Skype and sharing a screen, or using Amazon watch parties on Twitch?
    • Choose quality TV or video that teaches something, shows diverse people and experiences and reflects your family values. I really love Common Sense Media for researching our options.
    • Choose things that take you on an adventure outside your home. This is a great time for nature documentaries, or shows about foreign lands – anything with a touch of the exotic can be a welcome break!
    • Have your child watch where you can keep eyes and ears on what they’re watching.
    • If your child is using YouTube or other similar platforms, check their history now and then to make sure they’re making appropriate choices, and have conversations with them about what they’re consuming.
    • Set limits on what’s appropriate in your family and what’s not. If your child violates those limits, then impose consequences – take away entertainment screen time.
  • Video games – I’ve got a kid whose deepest passions are video games, so I get that they’re an easy motivator to get kids to do another thing they don’t want to do (i.e. if you finish your school work you can play Pokemon…). Just try not to over-use them.
    • Ask yourself: Is there something else they could do? Is there some other reward that would motivate them?
    • Can you play together and make it a social activity instead of them playing alone?
    • Choose games with challenges – instead of just mindless Candy Crush games or platforming games that only teach hand-eye coordination, look for games with some cognitive challenges too – perhaps puzzles to solve, or building challenges to pursue.
    • Minimize games with lots of violence or age-inappropriate language, sexuality, and situations. Again, check out reviews on Common Sense Media or elsewhere.
  • Escape / Zoning Out – Realistically, in our current quarantined life, sometimes we just want to escape into something, and screens offer an easy escape. If you catch yourself or your child doing this, think:
    • What else could we do – could we just go for a walk? Or exercise? Put on music and dance? Do some crafts, play some games? Choose things that emphasize social connections and emphasize physical movement as a balance for all that screen time.
    • Try to minimize background TV and mindless clicking through social media. If you need the occasional zoning out time, consider setting a timer to remind yourself to look up and ask yourself if you want to continue or if you’re ready to move on to another activity.

What Else?

Several of my points above were “ask  yourself what else you could do.” I think that’s a key thing. If you consider what all your options are in the moment, and the screen solution is the best answer, then use the screen without feeling guilty. But, if you can think of other satisfying options, then choose those more often.

Now might be the time to try something new: Yes, you can be one of those folks who is telling everyone on social media about your families’ new hobbies – new musical instruments, your family’s first garden, your sourdough starter projects, roller blading adventures, art work, your new puppy, or the domino chain Rube Goldberg your child built!

As much as we love Lego in our family, I’ve previously resisted just having a bin out all the time. The clutter bugs me. But, in the midst of this quarantine-time, we’ve surrendered half of our dining table to a free-build Lego zone to encourage that hands-on play whenever possible. And this weekend, I think we’ll set up a tent in the living room, and toss a pile of books inside.

Read More:

I’ve written previously about the Benefits and Risks of Screen Time, and Making Screen Time Work for Your Family. It has a lot more tips about how to choose appropriate content, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

The most helpful article I have found on the topic of coronavirus screen time is “Screen Time Recommendations For Parents: How Much Is Too Much For Kids?” from Child Development Institute https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/screen-time/screen-time-recommendations-for-parents-how-much-is-too-much-for-kids

My final piece of advice is be gentle on yourself – don’t feel guilty for using screens! We’re parenting in a situation unlike any other before us, and we’ll just have to do the best we can to make it through each day.

Making School-from-Home Work

Like millions of parents around the world right now, I’m learning how to support my child in “attending” public school from home. (Note: I call this school-from-home rather than homeschooling, because  it’s a very different experience for those who are  doing it due to the pandemic, versus those who chose it for a long-term path.) I’ll share here the system that is working for us, in case it is helpful to others, but there is no one right approach that will work for everyone.

What the School Gives Us

My son is in the third grade in the Lake Washington School District (in the suburbs of Seattle). For 3rd grade, they’re supposed to do about 150 minutes a week of reading, 150 minutes of math,  60 minutes of writing, one “library” activity, one music and one PE. Plus, if time, 30 minutes science and 30 minutes social studies. It’s supposed to add up to 1 – 2 hours a day, or about 8 – 10 hours a week. We find it takes about 2 – 2.5 hours a day to complete the assignments.

It is primarily screen-based, with apps and online learning platforms that guide the kids through the activities. They can do the activities at any time. Twice a week, they have a brief class teleconference on Teams where they mostly check-in – sharing what they’ve been up to. Weekly schedules are sent each Monday, and every Thursday teachers check if the kids have done their work.

Here is a sample weekly schedule.

schedule

Do you feel overwhelmed looking at that? I sure do! We haven’t even shown this to our son, because he would overload just from imagining all this work hanging over him.

On Facebook, I’ve seen some parents say they’ve set up a schedule, where they do reading from 9 – 9:30, math from 9:30 – 10, and so on. That would not work with my son. Forcing him to do something when he’s not in the mood is really a battle – if he can choose when to do something, it goes much better. At least most parents built in recess / free play blocks into their schedules, and that would make it better!

Some parents sit down one on one with their kids all day – as a working parent, I can’t manage that.

Our System

Our school system did not offer the online learning in the early weeks of the closure. But we needed to do something… my husband and I work full-time from home right now, and we need ways to keep our son busy! If it were up to him, he would be on video games and YouTube all day long, and barring that, would read all day long. He needed to have more balance than that, so we invented our Suddenly Homeschooling system. When the school district added in distance learning, we adapted our system. It works great for us, as it gives him a lot of flexibility and choices, while also providing a lot of structure and routine (very important to our son, who is autistic) and communicating what our expectations are for him to accomplish.

cardsWe have a system of cards, each representing a piece of his work. He has to complete 8 cards a day. When he has completed 4, he earns an hour of screen time. When he has completed 8, he earns a second hour of screen time. Then, he is done with his work for the day, and done with screens for the day.  Each day he has 6 cards that are required (morning check-in, reading, math, writing, science/social studies, and physical activity – he needs to burn off some energy for all our sanity!) The others are flexible – practicing playing recorder, calling his grandparents, helping with extra chores, etc. Click here to see all his: Cards.

We keep the cards on the desk where my husband and I work, and whenever our son finishes a task, he comes over and we check it off, and help him figure out what he wants to work on next. If he needs help, one of us helps him, and then gets back to work. If he wants a snuggle, he sits in our laps and we work around him. We work breakfast and lunch in around the schedule he chooses – he often eats while listening to a read-aloud or watching a video for school. Or he takes a break and we eat socially – it’s up to him.

Having the cards rather than a checklist works really well for us. The tangible nature of being able to sort through the cards, put the completed tasks in one pile, put the next task on the top of the pile, and see the required task pile dwindle as the day goes on feels much more manageable for us than looking at that checklist of all the week’s activities all at once.

Some days, he stays really focused, and he whips through the first 4 points by 10:30 in the morning, and done with all his work by 1:30. Other days, he dinks around, or chooses to read for fun instead of doing his school work, and it takes till late afternoon. When he’s dinking, we remind him of the impact of that choice, but sometimes he decides that’s the way he wants to balance his responsibilities and his relaxation, which we think is good learning, as that’s how things will work in college and much of adult life.

And if he’s done his work, which has allowed us to complete our work, then we have the shared reward of evenings that are relaxed social time for all of us. Movies, walks, and games.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. We have certainly had some big battles! (I feel like i need to post a sign to my neighbors saying “If you hear screaming from the house, don’t worry… it’s just that we said screen time is done for the day.”) But all in all, I feel like we’re on the right track for our family.

* Not One Size Fits All

I want to be really clear that I know different things work for different people -different kids have different skills, temperaments, and challenges in their environments – different parents have different skills, temperaments, and challenges in their environments – there’s never one right answer!

I also totally get that not everyone has the same resources available to them – we are lucky to have the devices we need for online schooling, good internet access, reliable access to food and safe housing, and the ability to work from home and maintain our income, and we’re two parents with one kid (we have two other children, but they are adults and are not living at home), so truly, I have no judgment for other people who are having a hard time making things work.

I think it is a fair and reasonable thing for some parents to choose to opt out of schooling from home. Doing school is mostly a soothing routine for us. If it creates tons of stress for your family, and trying to get through it is feeling stressful or even traumatic for you, you might make other choices. I hear (on Facebook – haven’t verified) that you’re not required to school children under age 8. (And I believe in the power of play-based learning for young kids! So you might be able to create a play-based system that works for you). I suspect that for older kids, you could do some paperwork to transfer over to “homeschooling” which has looser requirements.

Or many parents are just communicating with their schools and teachers and saying “here’s what our family is doing for school” (e.g. ‘schoolwork in morning only – we don’t do any in the afternoon’, or ‘we’re doing the math and the check-in, but we’ll do our own reading and writing lessons’) and there seems to be a lot of flexibility in the responses to that. The LWSD website says “During the mandated school facility closure… teachers will [track] students who are not participating in remote learning or responding to communication. This information will be used to help us reach out to students and families who may need additional support. This information will not be included in students’ official records or used for enrollment or penalties.”

Find the path that works for your family as we move through these unprecedented times.

As a parent educator, when parents ask me “is ____ a problem?” I always come back with: “is it a problem for you or your child, or is it working well for everyone in your family?” If you have found something that works for you, hurray! If not, then hopefully my post gives you some insight into one possible option.

Postscript… LWSD system

This is just for anyone who wants more info about what the programs are that our school is offering.

Starting last week, they are offering remote learning resources, and kids are required to submit schoolwork that will be graded.nThe work is all organized in an online platform called Power School Learning. So, they log in to PSL and most other things are linked from there. (Note: one thing that makes us crazy is that all the different sites have different user names and different log-in info! We’ve created a document in One Note that we can see on all our devices, so it’s easy to look up the passwords anytime / anywhere we need them.)

They have a morning check-in question they can all add a comment to, Wonders vocabulary, Lexia reading, Envision math, Dreambox math, Edutyping, plus materials developed by the teachers: writing activities, science and social studies, listening to a class read-aloud book, and doing activities provided by the music teacher, PE teacher, and counselor. They’re having a Microsoft Teams meeting with their teacher twice a week – these are mostly social check-in times. (Some parents have complained about this, wishing their teachers would teach, but as a teacher myself, I would argue that what the kids need out of this time is the thing that no online app can possibly replicate, and that’s the social-emotional aspects of connecting to their teacher, their classmates – people outside their home.)

For kids who are strong readers, who enjoy screen-based activity, and who don’t need lots of social interaction with peers, it’s a workable program for this public health crisis. But it’s not as good a match for many.

Low Contact Parks on the Eastside

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Update on 5/8:

Current state guidelines on outdoor activities do allow for outdoor activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used. They also recommend that 1) people with flu-like symptoms not participate, 2) recreate locally – do not travel farther than necessary, 3) limit your recreation partners to those who live in your household unit. 4) use face masks in any situation where social distancing is not possible, 5) bring your own food and supplies.

King County says: “Visitors are asked to “Keep it Moving!” – meaning to use our parks and trails for walking, running, riding, and rolling. No congregating in parking lots or trailheads and no team sports or pick-up games on ballfields.”

I would add – don’t count on restrooms being available – be sure to “go” before you go. And please, Please, PLEASE respect the guidelines!!! If lots of people violate them, the parks will be closed down again. 😦

Choosing a Less Traveled Path

When planning an outing, the first parks that come to mind are the most popular ones – Green Lake, Alki Beach, Marymoor, Rattlesnake Ridge. But these can get crowded. But in King County, we are blessed with so many fabulous public spaces outdoors. Here are some less well known gems to consider for your walks during this time. (Some of these are bike-friendly, some are not: check bike maps for bike trails.)

If a park has a playground you would have to pass by to get to the trails, I’ll make a note, because I know it could be super hard for some little ones to see a playground and be told they couldn’t play there. Below, I’ll link to websites for city parks departments. Here’s the current status of King County parks, and Washington state parks.

Bellevue

Bellevue Parks has over 2700 acres of parks and open space and over 90 miles of trails! There’s a map of Bellevue Parks here. Some options to consider:

Lake to Lake Trail System is ten miles of trails. You could park at many spots along the way and just do a portion of the walk. The Lake Hills Greenbelt is from Phantom Lake to Larsen Lake. Larsen Lake Blueberry Farm has plenty of room for wandering up and down the rows.

Coal Creek Natural Trail is near the Cougar Mountain trails, but has fewer hikers.

Lewis Creek has a 2.3 mile walk that takes you through wetlands and meadows. (Playground at one end, but easy to avoid.) There’s a 3 mile trail at nearby Lakemont park that I haven’t checked out yet.

Mercer Slough is 320 acres. It’s got multiple trails to hike to view wetlands and meadow.

There are three parks I know of that you might never know had a mile or more of hiking hidden in them.  Robinswood Park – near Bellevue College. Here’s a trail map, with one of our favorite trails through the woods marked out on it. Ardmore Park – near Microsoft.  Zumdieck is just north of downtown, and has a nice little loop through the woods. These are all great hikes for younger kids – I’ve done them with many three year olds, also good for elders who aren’t looking for an endurance hike. All three have playgrounds.

If you want a more challenging, straight up the hill in the woods hike, try the Weowna Park Trail up hill from Lake Sammamish.

If you’re just looking for a place to sit and read or have non-social play, there’s also tons more parks, both big and small. Some have playgrounds, some don’t. There are also lots of “mini-parks” and “corner parks” that aren’t much more than some grass, some trees and a picnic table. (We ate at one of those the other day, but we threw a blanket out on the lawn rather than sitting at the table, where virus concentrations might be higher.) Check on the Bellevue Parks website to learn more. And more Bellevue trails are listed here. Click here for: covid-19 restrictions.

Crowded Parks – may want to avoid

Avoid Downtown Bellevue Park – it’s often crowded – leave this to the folks who live downtown and may not have cars. Same thing for Crossroads Park, which can be crowded and is in another neighborhood where lots of folks don’t have cars to take them to other options. I would leave Bridle Trails for the horse folks to get the outings that they and their animals need. I would avoid the barn area at Kelsey Creek park which may be more crowded, but there is a nice .9 mile walking trail there, which should be fine.

Kirkland

Here’s the Kirkland Parks map. (Covid-19 info here.) Some parks to try:

OO Denny – north of Juanita, near the Kenmore border. Nice beach area. (There’s a playground there.) What many people don’t notice is that on the other side of the road, up the hill, there’s a few miles of fabulous wooded trails (here’s a trail map with points of interest). It’s a pretty challenging steep climb, but beautiful. When we went on a beautiful day in late April, we hiked two hours, and passed maybe 20 people.

Big Finn Hill is also on the border of Kirkland and Kenmore. It’s got 9.5 miles of trails back behind the playground.

Carillon Woods – near Northwest College. Some trails into the woods, pretty hilly. I wrote a post about it, though it mostly covers the playgrounds, which are closed now.

Edith Moulton – between Totem Lake and Juanita. Here’s the schematic for when it was re-designed, which includes detailed maps. It’s got a nice easy walking loop.

Juanita Bay (around the corner from Juanita Beach) has a nice path to look over the lake. You may see turtles. The boardwalk there has looked a little crowded when we’ve driven by near dinner times.

There’s also some parks I know nothing about, like “Cotton Hill Park – undeveloped.” Looks like it at least has a trail? Juanita Heights, Kingsgate and Norway Hill also have trails.

Places to sit and read/work outside: Everest Park – I like parking at their north parking lot and sitting by the stream. (The playground is out of sight from there.) Peter Kirk in downtown Kirkland, Terrace Park in Houghton – both of those have playgrounds.

Parks to Avoid

Tot Lot – I usually love it, but it’s a tiny fenced in park with a now-closed playground. There’s lots of parks that are basically just a play-ground – now closed – so I wouldn’t take kids there, but they could work for   some grown-ups for a picnic on the grass, such as the park at Phyllis Needy, Reservoir, Van AalstJuanita Beach, Marina Park, and Houghton Beach can get crowded on sunny days. When we went to Marina Park on a beautiful evening in early May, it was feeling a little crowded for my comfort, so we walked on through rather than staying and sitting a while.

Kenmore

Rhododendron Park has a short trail – a nice amble for a young child or an elder.

Wallace Swamp Creek has trails, but I haven’t had the chance to check it out. (Note, this is NOT an off leash dog park, but some people are under the impression it is, so there may be loose dogs there.)

Burke-Gilman Trail. This is a 20 mile long trail, but portions of it go through Kenmore. It’s paved, so great for bikes, roller blades, strollers. It is quite busy on sunny weekends, but probably a decent option for a cloudy, gray weekday. We have found the Kenmore stretches to be less busy than the Seattle zones.

St. Edward’s State Park. Lots of great trails. Definitely too busy on a sunny weekend, but would be a good outing on a rainy weekday. Large playground – it’s possible to park a ways away and walk away from it, and they might not notice. It’s a state park, so you need a Discover Pass, or it’s $10 to park there.

Here are more Kenmore parks, Covid-19 info here.

Redmond

There are 59 miles of public trails in the City of Redmond!

The City of Redmond website doesn’t provide a lot of detailed information on the trails; however, you can find more info about them on the All Trails website or app, on the Washington Trails Association website or TrailLink.

Trail names to look up:

Or, there’s the 1.5 mile Viewpoint trail in the Tam O’Shanter neighborhood on the border of Redmond and Bellevue.

Parks to Avoid

I would avoid the dog walk at Marymoor unless you have a dog who absolutely requires that much space for running in, just because there’s probably many humans there. The rest of Marymoor has plenty of open space for walking in or sitting outside in while distancing. (Note: Marymoor is in Redmond, but is a county park.)

Current covid-19 info for Redmond.

Learn about Nature while you’re out

I’ve written a guide to learning about Northwest Native plants, which includes all the major plants you’ll find on a hike outdoors, and also has a couple of scavenger hunts – one for preschool age kids, one for older kids (or adults), and a dichotomous key. Here’s another great Native Plant Field Guide that was developed by someone as her senior year project.

The City of Bellevue has a scavenger hunt for Lewis Creek that could also be used elsewhere. I found that some of the things on it were harder for kids, so I made my own version of the nature scavenger hunt using theirs as a base.

Walking in Your Neighborhood

Or, if you want to stay super close to home, but need to get outdoors (there are LOTS of physical and mental health benefits of time spent outdoors), you can get outdoors with proper social distancing, in ANY neighborhood. If you’re an adult walking alone, try listening to some great podcasts as you walk, or use this time to call and connect with a friend or family member. If you’re walking with kids, and doing the same path over and over, there are lots of ways to liven it up: one day do a search for all the letters in the alphabet (on license plates, street signs, and so on), another day, do a search for all the numbers, another day, play I spy where you take turns spotting things. Some folks are trying to start some coronavirus-time connections, like placing a teddy bear in their window for kids to spot when they’re out walking – keep an eye out in your neighborhood to see if you can find any signs that this is catching on!

When to Go Out

Obviously, if it’s rainy or cool, there will be fewer people out than if it’s gorgeous weather. So, grab a raincoat or an umbrella and head out in any weather.

You may also choose to access the parks at less crowded times – I would suspect that the most crowded times will be lunchtime, maybe a 4 or 5 pm end of the day time, and weekends, since many people are still working regular hours, whether at home or a work place, or attempting to school their kids during “school hours.”

Before you go out

First, let’s be cautious to take as few germs out into the world with us as possible. Things to consider: If you haven’t changed clothes in a few days (no judgment if that’s the case!), do so before going out. Bring a cloth face cover, in case it’s hard to keep enough distance between you and others. Take your temperature to make sure you don’t have a fever. (This is not a perfect precaution, because you can be contagious before symptoms, but still a good step because if you do have a fever, you should definitely stay home.) Go to the bathroom before you leave the house, so you’re less likely to need to do it when you’re out. (And because many parks facilities and bathrooms may be closed.) And wash your hands before going out!

If you have children, explain to them before you leave that this is a “no touch” outing. (Toddlers may not be capable of resisting all the time, but we can do our best.) I would not bring snacks along if I had a little one, since their hands would be in and out of their mouths over and over, maybe transporting germs in and out.

Note: Rails to Trails also offers a helpful article on the latest expert guidance on outdoor activity and covid-19.

When You Get Home

Leave your outdoor things (coats, shoes, purse) by the door. Don’t carry them through the house. Wash your hands! If you were using your phone, you could clean that too.

More Ideas?

If you have more ideas or any feedback, please add it in the comments!

Elsewhere on this blog, I have tips on Suddenly Homeschooling – I share the system that’s working for us and easy ideas for Toddler Activities in the Time of Coronavirus. Plus the blog is just generally full of tips about parenting kids from birth to age 9.

Suddenly Homeschooling

Due to coronavirus, millions of parents across the country (and around the world) are suddenly homeschooling their children. Some may feel prepared (they’re teachers!), some may have all the resources they need at home, but many of us are under-prepared, under-supplied, and also trying to figure out how to manage that along with all of our other responsibilities in this new era. We’re all faking it together and figuring it out on the spur of the moment!

For us, school suddenly disappeared. One afternoon we found out that at the end of the school day, they were closing for two weeks, then the next day that became six weeks. We took a few days off from being responsible. For the first four days, we let our son do whatever he wanted to (well, we limited his screen time to two hours a day, but otherwise he was flexible). But we told him we were just doing that for a few days, and he should expect that on Monday, we’d start homeschooling. That gave me a few days to come up with ideas.

I turned to homeschooling parents for advice, and I’ll share with you here the plan we’ve put together for our nine year old.

But first, let’s say:

Go Easy on Yourself

Don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself! Don’t feel like things have to be perfect!! Don’t worry that this will cause them to fall behind and never catch up. We’re all just going to do the best we can. Luckily, kids are resilient, and they will bounce back from this experience! If some days, you’re exhausted and swamped with your own burdens, don’t feel guilty about using screen time. If you feel like you should be making your child do math homework, but you just need to get the laundry put away, then today becomes Life Skills 101 instead of math, and you teach your child to fold laundry. It’s all OK.

And if you know that trying to homeschool your children would make you miserable, would make them miserable and turn every day into a battle, then don’t do it!! We never want kids to resent “school” so much that they decide they hate learning! I believe that love of learning is the biggest key to success in school and life, so do whatever works for your family to preserve that. Feel free to run with the Free Range philosophy and do whatever whim strikes you for the day, letting your child self guide their learning – reading books all day, doing Lego all day, whatever!

Many parents find that unstructured spontaneity works well for their family, many recommend having a bit more structure than that, so the rest of the post offers some structure and routine in case that is what is helpful to your family, as it is for mine.

Making a Plan

I’ve seen a variety of advice, but this is the one I find the most helpful summary. It’s from Mary Oemig, President Boom Learning (former homeschooler).

Each child should write a plan for the day each morning. Younger kids might need a little help with ideas. Older kids should include open items assigned from teachers.

All kids should include:

1. A reading activity
2. A writing activity
3. A math activity (games are great for younger kids)
4. A science activity (for youngers can be observations about spring during a walk – note changes each day, observe weather, online videos)
5. A social studies activity – history of plagues is relevant, lots of great educational videos on YouTube. 🙂
6. A PE activity – walks and bikes are good. Playing on playground equipment not so much.
7. A plan for playtime/free time.
8. Life skills / chores

Develop a system for family members to communicate to each other “Do Not Disturb” and “Available for Play”. Reinforce respecting whichever system you come up with.
Parents should have a set time during the day to review the plan with each kid to help them learn time management. This is a great opportunity to develop self-management skills.

I suggest that you do not dictate the schedule but rather guide children on developing their own plan.

For those who care: The research source for this approach is Tools of the Mind. They use this method with children as young as pre-school.

The idea of creating categories to complete was really helpful for me. (I’ve been teaching this idea for years when talking about how to choose toys and activities for babies, toddlers, and young children, using the theory of multiple intelligences – read more here.) I decided to build a system of cards for my son.

For each card, he earns either a full point or a half point. He’s not allowed to have any video game screen time before noon, no matter what. After noon, WHEN he has completed 5 points (~2.5 hours) THEN he gets one hour of free choice screen time. He then has to complete 3 more points to earn another hour of screen time, and that’s the maximum for the day.

My husband and I are both working full time from home, so his activities needed to be things he can do mostly independently.

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Each card has criteria for what could qualify for completion – sample activities he can choose from. Here are his cards. The first 4 cards are required to complete every day. The others are options to choose from.

  • Reading – 30 minutes. 1 point. Lexia app from school, reading packets from school, or reading a book. To count for school work, it must be a book with a plot. Fiction. Not comics. Paper or ebook is fine. (He loves reading and would read all day, so this is the easy one.)
  • Writing – 20 – 30 minutes. 1 point. Practice on Edutyping app. Journal, write a letter, email, write a book report to share with a family member (we might also start writing Amazon reviews), write reflections on science homework. (He hates writing, so this is our hardest one.)
  • Math – 30 minutes. 1 point. Can use Dreambox or Xtramath – online programs from school district, or complete math packet from school. He can also use apps that drill him on multiplication facts. Sudoku, Numbrix, or other math puzzles. Math heavy board games or card games with parents.
  • Physical Activity – 30 minutes. 1 point. Could walk, bike, roller blade, play catch, etc. (This is a good time to rummage through your garage or closets for that sporting equipment you never use… we’ve got roller blades we hadn’t used in a decade!) He could do Wii sports to count for this, but he must spend a half hour outside every day, so if he does Wii sports, has to plan another outside activity, even if that’s sitting in the sun while reading. (Note: yes, you can still go outside now! Just minimize touching anything others have touched, so no playground time, and keep your distance from others.)
  • Science – 30 minutes. 1 point. Can include an educational video (there’s lots of great science content on video!) or a podcast. Could be a book. Must include something hands-on / active learning. (I teach hands-on science classes, so this one is easy for me… if you’re looking for resources for science learning for kids age 3 – 8, check out my other blog, www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.)
  • Social Studies – 30 minutes, 1 point. Can include video, podcast, or book. Can cover history, other cultures, social/emotional skills, and so on. (We’re thinking of podcasts like Short and Curly – an ethics / philosophy podcast from Australia, or Dad and I Love History, or Forever Ago. Let us know what else you like!)
  • Call his grandparents. Half point. We haven’t seen them in person for two weeks because we don’t want to risk exposing them to anything (they’re in their 80’s), so it’s nice to connect via Skype. His grandma is teaching him some Spanish as they talk.
  • Play recorder for ten minutes. Or make art. Half point.
  • “Life skills” – like folding laundry, cooking, cleaning. (One of the things we can all do with our coronavirus break is bring back Home Economics and shop / Industrial Arts classes! Whatever work you need to do, have your child do it with you! Half point.
  • Social Time Online – Zoom or Skype calls with friends, family, church members, and so on. Half point.

At the beginning of each morning, we have a stack of cards. He gets to decide what activity to do first. I flip the card over, and write when he started doing that activity. When he reports back, I write what he did so I have a record. I’m not super strict about the 30 minutes – anywhere in the 20 – 45 minute range counts. He can combine some activities: for example, if he plays recorder for his grandma on Skype, that counts for two half point cards. If he draws while he listens to a podcast, that counts for art and social studies. If he writes about science, that could count for both. (He has to ask permission to double count before starting the activity.)

So, you’ll notice that if you add up all those cards, it does not add up to maybe 4-5ish hours, not 6.5 hours, which is how long his school day was. (And if he doubles up activities, it’s less than four hours.) Parents might worry that they’re not doing “enough” if it’s not 6.5 hours of school work. Here’s the deal – at school, they’re not getting 6.5 hours really! They’re eating lunch, having recess, walking down the hall to music class, waiting for their turn with the teacher, and so on. You can get more done in 3 – 4 hours one-on-one. And they (and you) will have time off from worrying about “school.”

Having the flexibility to decide what order he does things in has been super helpful to him. And if he’s enjoying a science show and wants to watch two, he can do that, he just knows it will take longer to get through his points and longer till that screen time, but he can make that choice himself, which he likes.

So, I’ve created the structure and the requirements, but give him a lot of freedom of choice within that structure. So far it’s working well for us… hopefully it continues to.

And if you think it sounds super hard and time consuming, I promise you it’s not! I literally have been working 8 – 10 hours every day and squeezing management of his “school” in and around that, and it’s just some quick check-ins every half hour. And if you think I must have an angel child for this to work, I should say that my son is diagnosed as autistic, and suspected ADHD, and we know the principal at the school very well, and the resource room teacher very well, because he spends a lot of time with them! But, for him having this structure, with the freedom of choice within the structure is exactly what he needs.

If you have advice, suggestions for resources, or questions, just add them to the comments!

Toddler Activities in the Time of Coronavirus

In the Seattle area, lots of activities are canceled due to concerns about transmitting coronavirus, but busy toddlers don’t understand this and still need to burn off energy. I’ve written a series in the past about “cheap dates with toddlers.” Here’s some that will keep you busy without putting you indoors in close contact with others.

  • Egg Hunts – need a rainy day play activity for any day of the year? Plastic egg hunts – they’re not just for Easter anymore!
  • Nature Shopping – collecting rocks, leaves, pinecones, or photos.
  • Explore New Parks – covers St. Edward’s, O.O. Denny, and Big Finn Hill in Kenmore. Even on cool rainy days the park is a lot of fun as long as you have appropriate clothing. (Here are some “low contact parks” that may be best options in the coronavirus era.)
  • Counting Cars” on any street corner… kept my boy busy for hours!
  • Go to a Dog Park – even if you don’t have a dog!
  • Construction Theatre – do you have a construction project in your neighborhood? Take your child by from time to time to see the progress.
  • Rock Shops and Plant Nurseries – offer fun outdoor exploration and an opportunity for some basic botany and geology lessons.
  • Go for walks around your neighborhood, or take a drive to somewhere new to walk. You can prolong a walk with kids by making a walk an ABC scavenger hunt. They need to find the alphabet in sequence along your walk in the letters on street signs, garbage bins, license plates, etc. Could do the same w/numbers. Walk until you have found all the letters in order. Also, you could make it a scavenger hunt with a list you compose before you leave home. List all the things you have to pass before you can come home…a green car, a black and white cat, a garbage bin, etc. Or take dice with you and roll at each intersection – odds left, evens right – or adjust if you have 3 options. nice way to explore the neighborhood and fun for them. Or in a downtown area, follow the lights… at every intersection, press the button for the walk light crossing both ways – whichever one says walk first, that’s the way you go.
  • Plan daily Skype calls with grandparents, your friends, your kids’ friends. Have someone else entertain your child for a little while – you get a break, they get to bond, and reduce isolation for all. Folks can read stories, play charades or do puppet shows, do art together, sing songs together, and more.
  • Teach life skills – if you’re doing laundry, can your child help you sort socks? If you’re putting away dishes, can they find all the spoons? If you’re gardening, give them a trowel to dig with.

Other ideas:

You can also check out my “Fun with Toddlers” series, which include songs, games, crafts and books for toddlers, all related to themes, such as Transportation, Spring, Ducks, Stars, and so on.