Updated: Dec 11, 2020
We were told this would happen, and it did: we’re in a coronavirus second wave and there’s no end in sight. And after four months of the first wave, all us parents are losing our minds! Not because we don’t love our children. Not necessarily because we’re stuck with them 24 hours a day...
It’s because we’re stuck with them 24 hours a day, and we can’t get out of the house, and unless we have all the amenities of a school, playground, local YMCA and I’m not sure what else, they can’t burn enough of that energy out and get enough sensory stimulation to be able to regulate the way they could pre-quarantine.
Not everyone has a backyard. Not everyone has a quiet neighborhood street to take their kids on scooter/bike rides. Even many of those who pre-COVID lived in a building/community with a pool or common recreation area no longer have access because those areas are closed again.
We are fortunate enough to have a backyard at our current 6-month rental. Still, our previous home was on a busy street with a non-functional, unsafe backyard (for play purposes). So, we were always heading to local parks to get the kids the outdoor, sensory and physical stimulation needed.
We’ve slowly built up a small arsenal of activities/tools at home that my almost 8-year-old hasn’t gotten bored with yet. Before I share our go-to list, just one quick note: It is important to have a ready-to-go art/craft box. It doesn’t require much:
Scissors (kept with the markers and only taken out during crafting/art) - I find these to be the most comfortable and durable for my children and what they experiment cutting with!
Construction (this thing has lasted us FOREVER!) & plain white paper
String, yarn, and/or thread
Scrap pieces of wood and sanding paper – (optional)
Paints & brushes - yes, LACMA fans, we got the ones at the kids paint room (optional/if you have a safe space for the kids to use them – we’re in a rental so only outside on the grass). These tempera paints have an incredible brightness and saturation to the colors. My children love experimenting with them.
Popsicle sticks – (optional - we’ve actually run out of ours and I’m not restocking until one of them asks). If you do get them, get the natural ones. The colored ones bleed on everything at getting just slightly moist and make a mess of everything.
We also keep random supplies that were gifted - washi tape, rocks, shells, etc.
You could also have crayons. I just find that they don’t work so well with #2 below.
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Without further ado, here are our top 5 go-to activities for forced indoor time:
1. Caroline Pratt’s Unit Blocks°
If there is one big investment we’ve made that is absolutely worth it, this is it. It has lasted from toddler years to age 8, and there’s no loss of interest yet. My daughter has also experimented/built since toddlerhood (she's 3.5 now), albeit in her own developmentally appropriate smaller, less complex way, or she joins his builds.
Whole worlds have been created. The most recent iteration has been a city on stilts on the perimeter of the Amazon river.
Prior to that was a Jurassic world – a train station at the entrance, dinosaur cages, Pterosaur dome, and a marine reptile water tank. There have been zoos, cities, wildlife reserve parks, temples and just experimentation with gravity.
My children have built separately, together, argued and torn down each other’s buildings, argued and come out on the other end with amazing co-created designs. It has been a whole world of learning and imaginative play for them.
What are Caroline Pratt’s Unit Blocks, You Ask?
“An innovative young teacher, Caroline Pratt expressed the ideas of Friedrich Froebel that open ended materials provided children with the opportunity to represent their world.”
She founded the City and Country School, the hub for progressive education in the United States, and she create these blocks in the size and proportions we find them today.
Manipulating unit blocks gives children insight into gravity, physics, and mathematical concepts such as representation, proportion, and ratio. They are carefully cut to represent wholes, halves, and quarters in all the different ways the whole can be cut up.
Children’s brain circuits are able to wire all this information that is normally taught in a more theoretical manner in schools into coherent bodies of knowledge as they literally construct their knowledge and reconstruct their surroundings, spilling forth their imaginations and ideas.
Important Tools for Block Building
The key to block building is to have and/or make accessories to use with the blocks. Enter the ready-to-go craft/art supply box. Of course you can use small stuffed animals, figurines, cars, Legos, etc.
Still, if you’re without, a bit of construction paper, colored pencils and scissors will do the trick. The blocks create the world. The accessories allow your child to fill that world with creatures and objects and magic! Hours and hours of uninterrupted play time.
Why this and why not Legos or smaller blocks? Two words: Heavy Work
Don’t get me wrong. My children love Legos. However, Legos do not provide the same kind of sensory input that kids need and the fact that they hold together prevents certain types of learning about the physical world.
Have you heard of heavy work and how it can help regulate children? Children are developing their sensory systems all throughout childhood. They need significant proprioceptive input (about where and how our bodies are in relation to the environment around us). There is so much literature out there about the benefits of heavy work, here's another example! Suffice it to say that it helps grounds the body and is huge in self-regulation.
These blocks are heavy. They take energy to lift and manipulate. They provide significantly more proprioceptive input than small plastic Legos, or smaller versions of these same blocks. Also, the type of play it creates, with the child crawling around and through the world he/she has created also invites this type of movement.
So, science, math, open-ended imaginative play, and proprioceptive input – it can’t get better than this. I promise, it will be worth it.
°Note: the unit blocks I purchased for my children are no longer available. Here is a link to the most similar set I could find, and a friend who recently purchased these confirmed, with the same size specifications and block types. I will update this post if the set I purchased becomes available again.
2. White Model-Magic
A simple one, I know. Not too much to explain with this one. I will say, my kids definitely get more creative with blank white material, than when they already have fixed colors of Play-Doh or plastilina/molding clay. They get to create it in white and then add their own colors with colored pencils or markers (crayons don’t really work).
When I asked Dante what he preferred about Model Magic, he said that he could manipulate smaller and thinner pieces without them breaking apart, like would happen with clay when making a thin spiral shape. I also think both kids like the unique texture – a sensory preference.
Again, with some poster board or construction paper taped together, the kids have created amazing panoramas. An undocumented creation was my daughter’s recreation of the Peter and the Wolf story, a repeating theme at her preschool pre-COVID. I played the David Bowie narration to Peter and the Wolf, gave her green construction paper (for the field), blue construction paper (for the pond), and model magic. Soon, we had Peter, the wolf, the cat, the duck and the bird. She didn’t feel like making the grandfather or the hunters.
This one here, Dante says, they were working on recreating the Alaskan Yukon during dinosaur times. I’m not sure how accurate it was but who cares, there were packs of velociraptors, different kinds of longnecks, nesting areas for Maiasaura, treeless areas because that’s how the Arctic Tundra is, etc., etc., etc. – imagination, science, and history combined!
Needless to say, anything created with Model Magic can also be used with the block building. Also, the fact that it dries allows you to reuse your creations in different imaginative play scenarios.
3. Books, audio books and coloring books
This is a classic and I’m sure you’re thinking, “duh.” Still, I have to point out that this is one of the top activities in our house. We’ve been reading to/with the kids since they were months old. The benefits are innumerable and they have both become such incredible story tellers.
The general rule is everyone can read whatever they want whenever, which I think is critical to fostering a love a reading. Except for once a week, when we sit down to read a book on a topic that is important to our family and our values (see below). In fact, we have turned one of these books into a family project!
We try to choose our books carefully. While I constantly fight with my inner “there’s-no-such-thing-as-hoarding-when-it-comes-to-books” voice, we really do have a dream of being permanent nomads and need to limit our physical books. We’ll probably get reading-only tablets for everyone when on the road but still, I believe in the value of holding a real, tangible book and turning the physical pages.
Our collection has to be balanced in several ways. How to Fill Your Children's Book Collection gives much more detail on the values and principles that guide our book selection/curation, and details our actual book choices, as well as the reasons why. Here, I only list some examples from each category to give an idea of what this collection looks like and the diversity of books we introduce our children to:
Multilingual/foreign language books - in every language we speak at home (English, Russian, Spanish, and Italian). I don’t mean “learning Spanish” type books but books with plot lines in those languages – because the language is learned through the story telling;
A few picture/wordless books that allow anyone to be the author/narrator and the story to be told in any language. Our favorite series is Aaron Becker’s Wordless Trilogy;
Science/Non-Fiction books – this is a mix of books on: 1) Topics the kids love (e.g. animals, dinosaurs, body awareness), and 2) Topics that are important in our household (these categories also happen to overlap & this is an non-exhaustive list): important public figures, whiteness and privilege, activism and being an agent of change; and
Fiction books – again, a mix of books the children have begged me for and books that tell stories about topics important to our family: 1) Series/chapter books – Tui T. Sutherland's Wings of Fire is the current obsession (Dante’s onto the chapter books, while Leila scours the graphic novels); 2) Diversity, equity and inclusion books; and, 3) Environmental Stewardship; and
e) Coloring Books – normally, I’d say I’m not a fan. I’d prefer my children to spend their time exploring their imagination and creating their own images. Still, every mind needs a break sometimes. Enter coloring books with a purpose: you can find coloring books that explore prehistoric times, culture and world mythologies and histories.
Reading/coloring ends up getting naturally woven into the day, usually following some of the “heavier work” activities, when they’re bodies are still and regulated.
4. Lot and lots of showers/baths with some toys
Note: unfortunately, I don't have too many pictures of this one for fear of my phone/camera getting ruined
Ok, your first thought might be that this is such a waste of water. However, I know most of your children take showers/baths anyway as part of their bedtime routine.
My suggestion here is to let them take that shower/bath when you see their energy levels spiraling out of the normal range, rather than wait for bedtime. Maybe a quick wipe-down with wipes if you really think they get unmanageably dirty before bed?
To keep water cost and waste down, get yourself a timer OR just agree to only let the water run for 5 minutes (throw in a book on water waste and foster a discussion about it that way!). That should be enough whether in the bath or a shower – just add a shower plug.
Let them at it! We have a few open-ended bath toys and the kids can’t seem to think of enough ways to use them. Most frequently, the shower is converted into a kitchen – they’ve made strawberry juice, and veggie soup, and garlic pasta and so much more!
The open-ended toys we have also foster building – so, they’ve built submarines, all sorts of water animals, planes, etc. and spend so much time zooming through the water!
We all know the benefits of water. We see it in our children when it is part of the bedtime routine, or if we have a chance at a pool, or beach/lake/river. Don’t wait until bedtime to get that. Toss them in there when you see they’re needing that kind of sensory input.
Our set was a hand-me-down. Apparently they are called "toy flakes." This is the closest I could find at a reasonable price and that doesn't come in a of set of 1000+ (no one needs that many!).
5. Free-for-All “Bed” Time
So, I clearly wanted to separate “bed” and “time” because I’m not talking about that time right before bed.
When this happens doesn’t matter much. Again, take cues for your kids’ bodies and ability to regulate.
I call this “bed” time because that’s what works in my family but really, it is anything your kids want to do that will involve bouncing, dancing, maybe an occasional handstand, somersault, or pillow-throw.
I think it works on the bed in our house because we have a low, soft, bouncy bed that lets them really compress and stretch their joints, gives a gentle pressure when they land, and it’s big and safe (we all co-sleep in a king, I know – we’re crazy and we love it). Again, those are all key to stimulating proprioceptive sensation, which – after the fact – results in more regulated children.
If you can’t handle the craziness – visually or it’s just too loud, leave! Set up the space so they are safe and just let them at it. Go take a break on the opposite side of the house, where you can’t hear them and just breathe. They’ll be fine and you will be much better for the break and for the release it provides them too!j
In fact, I'll try to upload pictures later, if Marino will take them for me, because it is just too much noise and visual stimulation for either of us. So, we both just step out and it turns out we have no photos! With the two of them going at it, the energy just becomes electric and it's too much! But it does the trick!
End Result? Calmer, More Regulated Children
We really try to space out the big body activities with the kids. We watch their body cues and go with what they’re needing. I’ll prompt them and/or give them a couple options.
If I see their bodies need bigger sensory activity, I will only give them a choice that includes sensory play: Do you want to take that shower or build with your blocks for now?
Once their bodies have had enough, they’ll let you know. They might even transition into one of their more quiet activities like reading or making accessories for the block-build on their own.
I also will say that this holds for both of my children, regardless of age or gender. They both need the sensory input, now more than ever, given we can’t go to parks or school where this kind of play and motor skill practice is a given.
I also need to add a disclaimer that we are fortunate to not be limited to indoor activities. Our current rental does happen to be in a “scooter-able” neighborhood. We also have the luxury of an above-ground pool and we’ve invested in a trampoline. Still, we were not so fortunate at our old home, where the backyard was unsafe and too small for such play.
I’d love to hear what you think of these activities and what other indoor activities you have for your children at home during this strange time of needing to be the home, classroom and playground. Please leave a comment below or on the Facebook post!