Learning at home during shelter-in-place: preschool

Learning at home

These are tough times for us and we might as well throw “normal” out the door along with trying to find toilet paper on the shelves.  Creating a daily routine based on your life before this pandemic is not realistic.  It is time to transform.

A butterfly doesn’t just pop out of its cocoon..it struggles, enabling it to strengthen its wings.  A new routine is going to take time to tweak, adapt, and reflect on.  If something isn’t working, it does NOT mean you are a failure or can’t “get it together”.  Parenting is THE most challenging job humans have.

The below is an idea for a shelter-in-place routine for children two to six-years-old.

At the minimum:

A morning routine, not necessarily time-oriented, with a series of actions like: wake-up, get dressed, brush teeth and hair, eat breakfast, activity (directed or free play).

A set time for AM snack / lunch / PM snack / dinner with a parent’s full attention/presence. Children typically need to eat a small amount every 2 to 3 hours; keeping their body fed at regular intervals is part of a healthy routine.  Nutritional meals are what helps a child develop well emotionally, physically, and cognitively.  Here in San Jose, there are free, daily meals being handed out at schools for ANY child.  Check the SJUSD website for times and locations.

Meal time is also an excellent learning opportunity for children to practice socio-emotional self-regulation, social/cultural skills (including manners and utensil use), and language.  You can even throw science and math in there if they help prepare food or you discuss it (e.g. Which food on your plate is a vegetable? How many broccoli trees do you have? Etc.)  Most importantly, it gives them a sense of security and belonging within the family unit as that time is dedicated to being present with them.

Physical activity.  Little bodies need movement to grow properly! During the shelter-in-place, you can still go for walks in the neighborhood with proper social distancing, ride bikes, jump on a trampoline, and more.  Morning outside time (at least 20 minutes) and afternoon outside time (at least another 20 minutes) is very important for developing gross-motor needs (coordination, strength, balance, etc.).  If it is raining, you can bounce a ballon, play “the floor is lava!”, dance, play the Hokey Pokey, do ABC Yoga, or play animal charades.  This is the very, absolute minimum time daily for physical activity.  On the flip side, be aware that tiny legs are working harder than yours, so too long of a hike or bike ride can exhaust them rather exercise them.  Please, stay away from park and other public play structures during the pandemic–while children are the least affected, they are the least hygienic and can pass it on.  

A story a day keeps illiteracy away! It can be just 5-10 minutes too!  They will observe you reading (you can also track the words with your finger as you read), which instills the value of reading and how to do it, they will hear you pronounce words and use inflection for emotional situations, learn new vocabulary, and practice their cognitive reasoning skills if you ask them open-ended questions about the story (e.g. What was the story about? What was your favorite part? Why were the bears so upset at Goldilocks? etc.)  If your child is a dual-language learner, be sure to include both languages in their daily reading.

A stimulating activity and/or materials (self-directed or parent-led):  this could be coloring, singing, playing musical instruments, play-doh, a play kitchen, a pretend doctor kit, blocks/legos/MangaTiles, or dolls/animals/figurines for imaginative play.  Children get VERY lonely enclosed in their room, even if it is filled with the very best.  So finding a space for them in each room you will be in can help occupy them while you’re working near.  They will inevitably want to show you something, sit on your lap, or play with you, so you’ll have to figure out a system of how to do that.  Some ideas are a little sand timer (no interrupting while the sand is dropping) or a signal “excuse me” or even a timer on your phone for you to initiate the interaction.  Investing five fully-present minutes completely to them can give them the security they need to play more independently for longer times.

That is it.  Yup, no worksheets or crazy DIY projects mentioned.  Above is a minimum and will vastly improve your little one’s experience while also keeping up their learning.  The shelter-in-place is temporary, so there is no need to suddenly take over as a preschool teacher.  You can supplement with the above minimum and feel confident it is enough for this time.

If you wish for guidance with a little more structure, the below routine is based on a moderate amount of interaction for allowing parents to still work at home.

Routine for preschool age children:

Before starting each time period, let the child know what to expect every time-period every day! It is only redundant to adults, children need transitional “sign-posts” at this age.  (Transition: “It is (insert activity name like “free play time!”).  You can (insert action: “You get to play with your toys or siblings while mommy/daddy is working”).  If you want to talk with me during this time, let me know by __(whatever action you come up with)___.”)

7:30 to 8:30: Waking up, dressing self with or without help, brushing teeth and hair, eating breakfast.

8:30am-9am Self-directed free time playing with toys or activities.  Towards the end of this (set a timer on your phone), give 5-minute notice of period ending and time to clean up if they don’t clean as they play.

9am-9:30am “Virtual Circle Time” I highly recommend, if real-time person interaction is unavailable, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood because he talks right to the child and covers the same topics I would normally cover in Circle Time: culture/society, socio-emotional development, and music/performance.    Do they not want to sit through it?  If they are used to super intense, fast-paced screen content, this may be an adjustment, but it is a necessary one as they will be expected to sit through Circle Time all the way through 2nd grade in many schools.  Or, if Mr. Rogers Neighborhood is not available, the first 30-minutes (approximately) of Sesame Street (right before the Abby portion).

9:30am-9:40/50am If your child has no siblings for a group activity, spend 10 to 20-minutes playing a game or sport with your child.  A walk/ride around the block, kicking a soccer ball or playing catch, playing hide-and-seek tag, Yoga stretching, working in the garden, etc..  A quick walk around the block is better than nothing.

9:40am-10:15am Self-directed free time outside or inside playing with toys or activities. 5-minute “last call” / clean-up reminder towards the end.

10:15am-10:30am One-on-one or family time for AM snack…ideally your child can help, even if it is cutting a banana in chunks or pouring milk from a little cup into a bowl of cereal.  You can initiate conversation by asking them what game or toy they enjoyed playing with the most before snack.  It is also great for them to hear adult conversations between family members.  The conversation doesn’t need to revolve around them.

10:30am-11am Learning activity: could be 30-minutes of Sesame Street if not already used above, a self-directed or parent-led STEAM activity (puzzles, painting, LEGOs, games, etc.), and/or Montessori materials and/or learning apps or toys (LeapFrog, etc.).

11am-12:15pm Self-directed free time playing with toys or activities.  5-minute and 2-minute warning that play time is almost over.  Pick-up toys or help tidy up a room.

Lunch Time for family interaction so children can receive emotional nurturing, develop language skills, and observe social/cultural traditions you model.  If you need help with table conversation, here is what I do with my family: everyone shares something that they are grateful for (or for younger ones, their favorite animal/shape/food/etc), then everyone takes turns sharing a pit and peak from the day (low point and high point), then it is opened to free conversation.

(Approx.) 1pm-1:30pm A short walk and afternoon story time helps your child settle down before nap or quiet time.  This gives a child much needed rest emotionally, physically, and mentally.  It will also allow you uninterrupted work time.  Children can rest on a couch near you looking through books or sleeping, quietly doing art, or some other quiet activity in their room.

2:30/3pm: Afternoon snack with a quick, dedicated time to connect with your child.

After snack, it is free-time / free play for the rest of the day, but no screen time (remember, we are reserving it for learning and to avoid parent melt-downs).  It is very important to include at least 15-20 minutes of outside activity during this time.

Screen time dilemmas suggestions.  This is what has worked for me, but every family dynamic is different!

“Their tablet/tech is the only way I can get any quiet during a meeting.” 

During shelter-in-place it will not be unusual and is actually becoming expected that there will be family background noise.  Make some plans for these time periods ahead of time: parent tag team, Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street reserved for meeting times instead of the above schedule, quiet play with a “star” reward for winning the whisper game, remembering to press mute, etc.

Yeah, but they don’t care about those learning shows…they want Baby Shark and Bubble Guppies and ____.”

Oh well.  You are the parent.  Let them whine and cry and have a tantrum or be angry at you.  Tablet time should be reserved for minimal use at this age group (two to eight-years-old with no screen time before two-years-old) for healthy development.   Children are VERY smart:  If they see you crack from their behavior, it is game-over.   Also, “any port in a storm”, your tech starved children will appreciate learning shows if that is all they have.  It just will take a concerted effort on your part to stand by your boundaries.

“I am having a hard time emotionally and just need some QUIET!”

Catch yourself before you go “FINE! HERE IS YOUR ___ TABLET! Now where is my quarantini/chocolate/Netflix?”.  If you are having a horrible day or your child is testing your already stretched limits, you can share with them that you are having a hard time emotionally and need some quiet.  If this only lasts for 5 minutes, remind them you need more quiet time to get better.   You are helping them develop empathy and becoming a kind person aware of others’ needs.

The “big guns” for desperate times: You are going to allow them a “special treat” for their quiet behavior with some limited screen time (add on time as you need).  Put on a timer, sand hourglass, or an alarm on your phone (10 minutes or so) for them to EARN IT first through quiet activities.

Survival Mode: Do what you need to survive, even if this means taking a vacation day (no routine, chicken nuggets and cheese sticks all day, and unlimited tech). Congratulate yourself on feeding them and not flipping out.  Tomorrow is a new day.

“What about after dinner or the weekend?”

Screen time will counteract their body and mind’s ability to settle and trigger a natural sleep state.  Some type of after-dinner routine (day by day or through the week) can help them settle down when they have a structure to depend upon.

If you want, reserve a special “Monday movie night” (family movie everyone watches together) or “Tech Tuesday” (individual device time)–this is what I do with my own family–then end it an hour before “lights out”.  If you are wondering about the other nights we have, Wednesday is game night (could be a board game, activity like charades, or sports/physical activity), Throwback Thursday (no tech or planned activities) is DREADED by my family …but guess what? As I settle down to read a book, they all gravitate together where I am to talk or play or read and end up having a great time.  Friday is free time (do whatever) and Saturday/Sunday we make time for one-on-one child/parent time and a family activity (bike ride, games, outing, something) for the other day.  I have always allowed morning cartoons on the weekends and then figure out proper screen time limits throughout the day.

Good luck families!  I will be posting my lesson plans throughout the week if you need some ideas for activities.  April’s theme is “Life on the Farm”.


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