Parents keep kids busy during pandemic with theme days, couch-to-5k plans, and Play-Doh

Parents across the Philadelphia region who've been ordered to work from home now have to be employees and caregivers, so they’re getting creative.

Anna Barsanti, 5, and her brother, Pierce Barsanti, 7, plant seeds to put under the four foot long grow lamp in the basement of their family home in Mt. Airy. Those seedlings can be transplanted to the garden later in the spring. (Courtesy of Erin Mooney)

Anna Barsanti, 5, and her brother, Pierce Barsanti, 7, plant seeds to put under the four foot long grow lamp in the basement of their family home in Mt. Airy. Those seedlings can be transplanted to the garden later in the spring. (Courtesy of Erin Mooney)

When Katherine Young isn’t traveling for work, she’s working from her Montgomery County home – alone. But for at least the next two weeks, Young will have to share her home office space with two temporary workmates who require a hands-on manager: her 10-year-old son and four-year-old daughter.

“It’s going to be very intense for the next couple of weeks, and we anticipate that it’s going to be much longer than two weeks, but we’re going to give it a try,” said Young, who created separate, miniature workspaces for the kids, complete with desks, a corkboard for the 4-year-old’s schedule, and a file holder for her son’s worksheets.

More than 1.7 million public and private school children in Pennsylvania are home for the rest of the month after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools to close for two weeks as the number of COVID-19 cases continued to climb. The governors of New Jersey and Delaware have issued similar orders.

Katherine Young made her children their own workspaces and schedules while they’re off from school (Courtesy of Katherine Young}

Young and other parents in the region, who are required to remain productive as they work from home, say keeping kids on a routine for next two weeks is key. But large age gaps among children and hefty work demands require some creativity.

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Young is tackling the challenge by making sure the kids wake up, get dressed and have breakfast just as if they were going to school.

Teachers gave both children two weeks’ worth of work. Young’s son has math and language arts assignments, while her daughter is learning how to write the days of the week.

Educators even offered suggestions for how the children could stay physically active at home.

“While I have them doing a set assignment or task, I’m doing some of my work,” said Young, who plans to squeeze some emails in during her daughter’s afternoon nap time. “In between, I’m working, but it’s not solid straight work where I can sit on my computer and stay focused for X number of hours.”

Young’s husband can’t work from home and is traveling into Philadelphia every day. The plan is for him to tag Young out when he returns home so she can finish her day’s work.

Theme days

For Erin Mooney, of Philadelphia, and her children, ages 5, 7 and 14, each day has a theme.

The family has already visited a nature preserve in Princeton. On St. Patrick’s Day, the family had an Irish soda bread lesson on the books, and has plans to visit a bird sanctuary in New Jersey this week.

“We’re going to have bike day when we’re going to do bike repair, bike washing. We’re going to take a bike ride with a map. There’s also ‘clean the basement day,’ which I’m not sure everybody’s going to be psyched about, but we’ll get a lot of work done.”

Mooney is also taking her love of gardening with the kids to the next level. They’re going to take a day to plant some seeds with fun names like “dino kale,” “joker lettuce,” and “sea shells cosmos.”

“They’re so excited they have the day off and they’re so excited they don’t have to go to school,” Mooney said. “I’m hoping that that excitement carries through the time that we’re together.”

Relaxing the rules

Still, for many parents across the region, having kids home comes with financial insecurities and other stresses.

Single, working parents like Angeles Rodriguez, have no one to pass the baton to and have to remain somewhat frugal amid calls from government and public health officials to practice social distancing to curb the spread of the virus.

Rodriguez has several jobs to make ends meet. In addition to being an artist and teaching Spanish classes, she also cares for the elderly.

As COVID-19 cases have increased across the U.S. and proved most deadly to seniors, Rodriguez’s employer asked her to stay with her client full-time to prevent outside exposure.

Her two boys, 11 and 9 years old, only have Rodriguez, so she had to give up the work hours.

For now, Rodriguez’s workload will be cut to the occasional remote Spanish lesson for clients. Though she charges less for those online classes, Rodriguez thinks it’s the safest way to make money while she keeps her family’s exposure to asymptomatic carriers to a minimum.

Still, the lost income is hitting her household as the family gets ready to move into a new home at the end of the month.

“The savings were already disappearing because of the move and at a faster pace now that I’m off,” said Rodriguez in Spanish. “Not working, feeling the money crunch, it affects me, but I guess that’s when you have to say, ‘OK, that’s what savings are for.’”

Rodriguez said she’s trying to make the most of the family’s time together by painting in between packing and work.

“I love them as company,” said Rodriguez, who has taken the approach of creating an unstructured routine for the children.

She has allowed the children to go to bed a couple of hours later than usual and to sleep in in the morning. Rodriguez also gives them time to play with puzzles and other toys – she limits electronics in the household – until it’s time for the whole family to make lunch and dinner together.

“We stay entertained painting, making Play-Doh figurines — and cleaning up their many Lego pieces,” she said.

 Enjoy the outdoors and expect some flops

More than a dozen families told WHYY News they plan to go on hikes while maintaining their distance from other people. Some parents plan to keep the game Pokémon Go in their entertainment arsenal.

Amanda Laster in Bucks County said her family plans to make time for home improvements.

Amanda Laster’s family in Bucks County plans to use the time off to work on home improvements. (Courtesy of Amanda Laster)

Emily Wicks in Jenkintown has a 4- and 7-year-old at home. A long-distance runner, she hopes to start her daughter on a training plan so they can run their first 5k race together.

“Couch-to-5k training plans are a great way to start running at any age and to get outside every day,” she said.

Many sporting events have been canceled this spring to curb the spread of coronavirus in large crowds, but Wicks hopes her daughter will be ready when races are back up.

One piece of advice parents give to each other is to remain flexible, because children have a way of picking apart the best-laid plans.

Carla Lewandowski was planning a scavenger hunt outdoors for the kids in her East Falls neighborhood, thinking it would be a way they could socialize at a distance. Except she says young children have trouble understanding that social distancing means no touching.

“My son loves to wrestle and there’s no way I can keep him off the other kids and I know that right now a lot of parents are too freaked out about it,” she said.

And when the children miss seeing their friends from school, Google hangouts have to suffice.

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