Let me introduce myself. I am a full-time children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. I am also the mother of a 2.5 year-old named Sally. I have a supportive partner and an adorable Jack Russell terrier. And, like so many New York parents, we are all living (and parenting) in a small apartment during the COVID-19 social distancing shutdown. So it’s fair to say that my kid is stuck with me in the most literal sense.
We are now weeks into our isolation and are continuing to work out the intricacies of this new learn/care/work/life balance—because work/life wasn’t hard enough, right? And you’d think, as a children’s librarian, I would already have the answers, right? It’s as if I’ve been handed the keys to the kingdom. So what makes this different? Well, one-on-one learning is a whole other game. It’s hyper-focused, individualized, and crazy exhausting—for both the teacher and the learner. Kids learn a lot from each other.
So how am I making this work? The first thing I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed is take a breath. I remind myself that I’ve been wanting more time with my child and here it is. So why save all the fun stuff for the library? Now I can do it at home—with my own kid. I put on my librarian/educator hat and I plan my day. I have had some failures, but what I’ve learned along the way is:
Structure is key
And it’s important that you communicate the daily plan with your child. When we start a library program, we let our patrons know what to expect. First we will do A, then B, and then C. Daycare and preschools do this, too. This is because your kid needs you to lead them and knowing what to expect gives them a sense of security which is needed now more than ever.
So, we get up in the morning, have breakfast, and talk about what we are doing that day. For example: first we will play, then we will do an activity (I name the specific activity or let her pick.), then we will have lunch. I keep it to a list of three activities to make it easier for her to remember and to keep us on a positive course.
Keep it simple
Your activities don’t have to be fancy or complicated. Sometimes simpler is better. For example, early on in our new normal, we were reading Babybug magazine together and she saw that a kid had a xylophone. Now, she has a whole band’s worth of instruments—but not a xylophone. So we made one. And I use “made” in the loosest sense of the term. Here it is:
Yeah, it’s pretty low-tech. I drew a bunch of rectangles and let her color them in. She still plays it sometimes, tapping it with her maracas (you could also use chopsticks, spoons, anything really) and making a “bong bong” sound. We’ve also made a car/airplane/bus out of a cardboard box. As an added bonus, we used chalk so that we can wipe it off and make something new.
Pro Tip: Babybug is a favorite in our house and is available for free using Flipster and your library card number.
Work with what you’ve got
We have tons of stuff around our homes that is tucked away in corners and collecting dust. For example, my mother-in-law misses her granddaughter so she started writing her letters. In the first letter, she invited her to write back. That’s really sweet, right? But I didn’t know how I would pull it off. Until I remembered that I still hadn’t given up on the notion that I’m a letter writer. Sometime in my 20s I had this romantic sense that I would buck the email system and write paper letters. I bought tons of stationery and stored it in a box that sits in a closet. It’s been sitting there so long that the glue on the envelopes didn’t even work anymore. Bad, right? Until now. We spent an afternoon writing letters. Since she’s still too young to write on her own, I took dictation and she drew a picture. While she drew, I asked her about what she was making. As she explained, I noted it in the letter. And voila! She is now a pen pal.
I have also spent some time digging around in my kitchen to see what I have hidden in there. And lo and behold I found that snow cone maker I’ve moved with six times but haven’t used in a decade. So, we made snow. She spent the afternoon digging around in it, scooping it, stirring it, and adding food coloring. We talked about how it felt, what was happening, why it melted, and how the different colors mixed together.
She was a little scientist and she loved it. And I understand that not everyone has a snow cone maker sitting around, but there is so much to be done with water and food coloring. You can make ice cubes that are different colors and put them in water of different temperatures and/or colors and talk about what is happening. And really cool stuff does happen. Colors mix and float and there is a lot to discuss. And really, the discussions are key. Get your kid talking about what they see, hear, feel. They get more out of it and you will too.
Pro Tip: The Library’s Digital Collections has tons of cool letters to view online like these Historical Postcards of NYC. And if you’re looking for more fun, at-home science experiments, this book offers a great variety and even includes a “mess meter” at the beginning of each activity.
Everyone needs to eat
Cooking together is one of our favorite activities. And I say this after having taken on an overly complicated cake recipe. The layers of what you accomplish with your child in the kitchen are immeasurable. You get dinner on the table; they learn math and science skills while counting, measuring and mixing; it helps with fine motor skill development; they have to follow instructions. Need I go on? So we bake together. We’ve made pies, cakes, and breads. She helps me measure and mix and pour. And we make dinner. She helps get things to the pan, but I always stand between her and the stove. Things get messy, but she is so proud when the meal is ready and she has helped to make it. And about that mess—it’s not all bad. She “helps” me clean up. If I need to distract her while I get parts of the meal together, I set her up at the sink with bowls, measuring spoons, whatever I have around really, and she plays.
I like to call it “Kitchen Sink Science” and she’s in charge.
Let them be your assistant
Last but not least, I have learned that she can be my assistant. It dawned on me when I was making a shopping list for our trip to the grocery store. She said she wanted to make a list, too. Of course! Why not? So I made my list while she sat and wrote her list. It was really cute and I had my epiphany. Now, I understand that I’m a children’s librarian so this is a little bit of a cheat—not everyone needs to make puppets or perfect a no-cook playdough recipe—but it has really helped to free me up to get a few things done. So if you can think of a way for your child to pretend to do your tasks, then they get that valuable imaginative play time, developing their social and emotional skills, and you get the time you need. For me, that’s a win.
I hope that these ideas help inspire fun activities in your homes. I know that it is stressful, but I’ve found that if I just take that moment to breathe, shut out the noise from the outside world, and focus on something fun with my kid, it does help make it all feel a little less overwhelming. And I wish that for you as well.
Looking for MORE activities? The Early Literacy team at NYPL has put together eight "recipes" for at-home play using household items. Find all the recipes here.