What to Do With Your Kids During Coronavirus Closures

Verywell / Bailey Mariner 

Key Takeaways

  • With schools and daycares closed, parents across the country are trying to balance work and family demands.
  • Many parents find that establishing boundaries, alternating work schedules with partners, and blocking out work time are effective strategies.
  • If a balance between work and family obligations can't be found, parents may want to look into their employer's benefits, including short-term disability and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

It’s safe to say that none of us were ready for the widespread effects of coronavirus in the U.S., least of all working parents with kids in school or daycare. All families have been impacted by the outbreak in some way, whether it’s schools closing, employers shutting down businesses (or not), the shortages of food, supplies, and medications, or the strict rules around social isolating. 

If you’re wondering what you’re actually supposed to do with your kids 24/7 in the wake of mass closings, schedule changes, and instructions to self-isolate from everyone you know and love, we’re here to help.

Scenario: You’re Working From Home With Your Kids

Your employer gave the go-ahead to work from home, but that’s turning out to be a nightmare. Your kids were playing ball inside during your conference call, demanding lunch when you had a memo to submit, and asking you how to finish their math assignment while you were busy crunching your own budget numbers in Excel.

Working from home is a fine art on a normal day (i.e. when no one else is home), but throw a couple of school-aged kids into the mix and it feels like an impossible feat. Here are some survival tips.

Block Out Your Time

If possible, condense your work into blocks of designated time. You’ll get a lot more done when you focus for two hours on work than when you try to multitask through interruptions and distractions for eight hours. Plus, it’ll be easier for your kids to get on board with respecting your work time if they know they’ll have your full attention at other times.

It’s much easier to plan on working from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. rather than randomly or intermittently throughout the day.

Establish Work Space Boundaries

Whether you have a dedicated home office or not, you can establish physical workspace boundaries with your family members. If you have an office, a closed door means you’re working. If you don’t, set aside one spot in your house and let your kids know that when you’re there, you’re working.

Create a visual boundary, if needed, by putting up some kind of divider, hanging a curtain or sheet, or even placing some colorful washi tape on the floor. Reward kids when they respect your workspace so they pick up the habit faster.

Know You're Not Alone

Millions of people all over the country are unexpectedly working from home with their kids around, so be upfront and honest with your employer, clients, and coworkers about your work-from-home life. Confirm when you can be "at your desk” and what work you expect to complete each day.

When you join a conference call, tell the other attendees your kids are home and they may hear background noises (or that you may need to jump off the call briefly if things go south). Set clear boundaries about work hours; if you’re not planning to answer emails outside of normal business hours, say so.

Keeping Your Kids Entertained

Now, onto the really tough stuff: keeping your kids busy and entertained while you work!

Honestly, this is not the time for screen time rules, so if you have an important conference call or virtual meeting, break out your child’s all-time favorite movie, pop them some popcorn, set them up all cozy on the couch, and kiss your guilt good-bye. 

If your child is too little for movies, try to work around nap time or your spouse or partner’s work schedule so they can be on childcare duty while you have meetings. If that doesn’t work, it may be better for you to work in the same room as your little one so they can see you, rather than trying to sneak off somewhere. Let the other meeting attendees know what’s up and mute your phone, if needed. 

Activity Ideas

For older kids or those times when you need to work but could still be interrupted (like answering emails), anything goes. But these are some reliable “keep busy” activities:

  • Take advantage of online resources like Mattel's digital Play Room to find games, DIY projects, printable activities, and more.
  • Challenge kids to a puzzle race (“Can you finish your puzzle before I finish my spreadsheet? Let’s race!”).
  • Offer a box of fun materials for open-ended play (busy box for toddlers or STEM box for older kids).
  • Print out a picture of a LEGO creation and see if your kids can copy it or make their own version.
  • Put on a kid-friendly yoga video, like the ones offered on Cosmic Kids Yoga.
  • Mix water and cornstarch together in a bowl for some gooey fun.
  • Bring your work outside while your kids draw with sidewalk chalk.
  • Let your toddler play in the bathtub or splash around in your kitchen sink with plastic toys.
  • Play a directed drawing video on YouTube for a virtual art lesson.
  • Watch a celebrity read aloud a book on Instagram (and support food insecure families across the country!) by following the Save With Stories IG account or searching #savewithstories.
  • Lay blocks or magnet tiles on the floor for toy car tracks.
  • Get out some copy paper, have them color on it, and then fold them into origami!

Scenario: You’re Still Working, But Schools Are Closed 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma because it depends on your family and employer situation. But there are some things to consider if your job requires you to be physically present. 

Check Your Employer’s Benefits

If it’s absolutely not possible to work remotely (perhaps you work at an essential business that has remained open), check out your health benefits package or talk to whoever is in charge of human resource issues.

If you’re concerned about continuing to work or can’t find childcare, you may need to consider taking a leave of absence, applying for family medical leave or short-term disability (especially if you or a family member falls into a high-risk category).

You might also consider applying for temporary unemployment, assuming your employer understands your situation and is willing to re-hire you when business returns to normal.

Piece Together Childcare

If you have to continue working (either logistically or financially), you will need to address childcare. This is tough because you should avoid having repeated contact with multiple people to prevent spreading the virus.

Grandparents, who are often a family’s first call for babysitting, may also fall into the high-risk category based on their age and co-existing health conditions, so you may not want to expose them.

That doesn’t leave you with many options, but you can:

  • Ask your employer about bringing your child to work with you. Not ideal, but it’s possible in some situations.
  • Look into changing shifts at work so you and your partner can alternate who is home with your kids.
  • Find one person who can reliably assist you with childcare (either in your home or theirs) but who also isn’t providing childcare to anyone else. This will at least limit the exponential spread of the virus, since your families will only be interacting with each other and no one else. Make sure to continue best practices for hygiene, like frequent hand washing and disinfecting and staying away from anyone with coronavirus symptoms.

Unfortunately, there may be no way to fully eliminate your family’s exposure to the virus without potentially losing income. But you can reduce the risk to your family by choosing your childcare options wisely, washing your hands frequently, and self-isolating as much as possible—even if it’s not all the time.

Scenario: You’re Trying to Home Educate 

In some school districts, kids are being given specific instructions on how to continue education at home, either with packets of printed work or ongoing online assignments. In other districts, kids and parents aren’t being offered much guidance on home education. 

(FYI, anything you’re doing at home right now is pretty atypical of real homeschooling, where parents have a lot of time to plan, prep, and practice teaching their kids! Cut yourself a lot of slack.)

Whatever your situation, you might be looking for ways to keep your child’s brain juices flowing with some mentally stimulating activities. Some of these can also be great ways to keep your kids entertained, which means you get double the benefits.

  • Utilize an online learning platform. ABC Mouse, Khan Academy, and BrainPOP are all great ways for your kids to participate in interactive lessons on a variety of subjects.
  • Educational apps for sight words and simple math practice let your kids reinforce skills through game play. 
  • Invite your kids to creatively solve a problem (“We need a better system for sorting the family laundry...can you come up with one?”).
  • Construction challenges, like who can build the tallest block tower, are irresistible to kids.
  • Ask your child to write you a story, paint you a picture, or build you a sculpture out of modeling clay.
  • Hand your child bins and buckets full of small objects (buttons, marbles, paper clips, beads) and ask them to sort the objects three different ways, such as size, color, and type.
  • Watch a science or history documentary.
  • Listen to a kid-friendly podcast.
  • Read books online through your library’s e-lending platform.
  • Solve puzzles, riddles, or brain teasers. Once your kids have gotten good, ask them to create their own. 

What This Means For You

No matter what your situation is, there are ways you can balance your work and family obligations. With a little boundary setting and creativity, you will be able to manage the situation. While no situation is ideal—and there will definitely be hiccups along the way—you still may find that when this pandemic is over that you cherish the time you had together.

The key is to go easy on yourself and your kids and be willing to let things go. If you, however, find that you just can't manage the situation, talk to your doctor about your concerns. You may find that you have an underlying mental health issue that needs to be addressed.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Sarah Bradley
Sarah Bradley is a freelance health and parenting writer who has been published in Parents, the Washington Post, and more.