Tips on Working from Home with Littles

How to Make a Workday Work

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A child looks outside during the COVID-19 public health emergency. CCN

I’ve been working at home for three years. I started my job at the Hill Rag working with a toddler, and three years later, I’m back working at home with a (different) toddler, joined by my husband and our now five-year-old.

Working with two young kids and your spouse at home –and not going out around ANYONE ELSE– is a whole new ball game. Many of us are facing it for a period of weeks. How can we negotiate this?

Parents like me first emphasize communication with your spouse (or any other adults in the house) at this time. Christina Hughes is an attorney who, like her husband, is working from home together with a 3-year-old and a newborn on the way. She says that she realized this lesson while making preparations for social distancing.

“Make an agreement now to have judgment-free communication and that teamwork is the goal,” she said. Two people trying to work with a third pulling on their arm can rapidly take on qualities of a competition (everyone has something so important to do). Reinforce this as often as you can, she said. You can get through this.

But how? What do you do with the day, and the kids? I reached out to an expert on keeping kids busy for advice. Self-described ‘child-development nerd’ Anne Gillyard has 9 years classroom experience in Early Childhood Education (ECE) and a Master’s in Early Childhood Development. A year ago she and Jodi Arellano found grOH!, a educational design company that helps create intentional office and home playspaces.

A Visual Routine

Gillyard offered some advice on how to handle kids in the playspace that is now both your home and office. First, Gillyard suggests you make a routine (rather than a schedule). She suggests using a visual schedule, where each activity is represented by a picture. For breakfast, the image could be a bowl and a spoon, for storytime a book, for naptime a bed –you get it. You and the kids can even draw them together as an activity, she said. Then, use magnets to arrange parts of the day somewhere accessible to the kid, like the fridge. This will allow you to rearrange the schedule and for your 5-year-old to still be able to follow it.

An example of a magnetic visual schedule. Courtesy Anne Gillyard/grOH!

If you can, arrange for an adult to be with the kids for blocks of time, so they know who to go to for attention or if they’re hurt (you can put a photo next to the activities). “Having a general flow to the day will make things comfortable and more predictable for kids,” Gillyard said. “They like to know what’s coming next.” In an ideal world, she said, the happenings of the day would be really clear for kids, and it will also allow the other parent to get something done.

In our family, we work simultaneously while the toddler naps (for two hours starting at 1 p.m.). We give our 5-year-old a craft, an activity podcast or a show during that time –whatever it takes to keep her occupied. Ideally, we then split up the day into four hour blocks with one adult in charge to let the other work behind a closed door. Blocks last either 8 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

It will take some time to find a schedule that works for each family, Gillyard said. “Give yourself some grace and give yourself space to make mistakes as you find the way to make it work,” she said.

The Skill of Independent Play

This is a time to help kids create the skill of independent play, she said. Don’t worry if your kid hasn’t mastered it –they’ll learn. “It is a skill that has to be taught, like riding a bike,” she said. Some kids will only play alone for about five minutes, and then need attention.

One thing you can do is create spaces to facilitate independent play. For kids, this often means actually reducing the options available to them, and making some of them look particularly attractive. “When kid’s say ‘I’m bored,’ it’s often because they don’t know how to recognize they’re overwhelmed,” she said.

Gillyard has three suggestions for how to make this happen at your house, some easy enough to begin during naptime:

  1. Take 1/2 the toys out of the play space. Give them between 4 and 8 options, depending on the size of the space, by type –ie., big cars, blocks, baby dolls, and puzzles. Little cars are a different type. Put the rest of them in an empty Amazon box and put it in your closet. “By this we’re setting up a matrix of toy rotation,” she said. “When we take about a lot of clutter, a lot of choice, it helps kids make decisions about what to play,” she said.
  2. Move Furniture. If you can, push things towards the wall in one room or area, or make a ‘runway’ for cars and kids in the hallway. This gives kids a good, open place to move and play. “Movement is critical to getting through these days,” Gillyard said, suggesting both parents and children set aside time to move each day. “Even if you just put on your favorite song on Spotify and dance for 10 minutes, it’ll really be good.”
  3. ‘Feature’ Play. Also called an ‘invitation to play’, Gillyard said that this is a way of making a particular toy or activity look particularly attractive so that a kid will want to engage with it. Choose a toy or activity a child doesn’t often get to do, maybe a race car track, play-doh or paint. Put it in the middle of a clear space or a table and just leave it there until the child chooses to engage with it. “This is also a good way to reinvigorate play,” Gillyard said, noting the times when kids lose self-direction. “Pull something different out of the box in your closet and feature it.”
Jodi Arellano and Anne Gillyard are founders of grOH! designers of intentional playspace. Courtesy: grOH!

Building Skills

If you’ve got siblings that fight, Gillyard says not to worry –sibling play is also a skill. “I wish I had a more magical answer,” she said, “but it is something learned.” It’s important to support kids who fight in independent play, she said, maybe with separate play areas if space allows.

When a caregiver has time to focus, Gillyard said, that adult can help them learn how to work together. “Like a coach, working with players who are having trouble with a particular skill,” she said.

She suggests a caregiver put out something ‘super novel and fun’ that all parties could get really involved with. An easy winner is water play, she said. Take the shower curtain down, put a bin on top with soap and bath toys, and sit and monitor kids playing together. Then when trouble brews, mentor best practices. “For instance, you could stop them and say, ‘I see you didn’t want her to take that from you. Watch how I react,’” Gillyard says, “and then demonstrate an appropriate reaction.”

Again, she emphasizes the need for grace and flexibility with yourself –and one another—during this challenging time. “Parents feel a lot of different ways about screens,” she said. When a kid just won’t play alone and you need to send an email, it’s okay to put on a show. “As long as we use screens as a tool, that’s exactly what it is.”

Guided Virtual Playdates

During the emergency shutdown, grOH! started offering virtual play dates. Targeted at 2- to 5-year-olds, the 30 to 45 minute sessions are a sort of directed playdate. Each session has a theme. On Tuesday, kids were asked to bring a leaf or an insect inside and have block available. In each session, kids engage with Gillyard and get up and move.

Depending on their child, parents can participate, or hang out in the background with a coffee and finally send that email. Sessions are offered at 10 a.m. daily. Until March 19, they will be offered on a donation basis as Gillyard works out the technological kinks, and you can sign up online. If they prove successful, grOH! will create more sessions.

In the meantime, Gillyard encourages parents to be gentle with themselves throughout the unprecedent challenges during this time. “What’s most important is that we make our kids feel safe, we make our selves feel safe, and we all find fun and joy together,” she said.

grOH! is still offering virtual consultations online. Learn more about Gillyard and her partner, Jodi Arellano, grOH! and the virtual playdates by visiting https://www.grohplayrooms.com/