Sharing a workspace with your toddler? Here are some strategies to make it work.
Schools are closed, parents are working from home, and there is a collective feeling that we are functioning at our max. The demands couldn’t be higher, the energy needed is nothing short of extraordinary, and the breaks are few and far between.
My sister told me this week that during a scheduled Zoom call, her three-year old started tantrum-mode screaming on a semi-hysterical loop. My sister is an obstetrician and the call was between professional colleagues. She was able to mute herself (thank God for mute), but she wasn’t able to participate in a way that felt good. Ultimately, no lives were lost and everyone involved was gracious, but the collision of her two worlds was overwhelming both as a professional and a parent.
Does this sound familiar?
Young children have infinite needs. With everyone home, parents are trying to show up professionally AND be 100% on for their kids. So what can we do now that we are sharing office space with our toddlers?
Let’s be honest, the easiest answer is screen time. Tried and true. In this new quarantine world, screen time isn’t just a tool in a pinch anymore; it’s become the go-to. But as weeks have turned into months and our time at home continues, so many parents are looking for a better solution for their littlest learners.
There is absolutely an alternative to popping preschoolers in front of a screen to get things done. But in order to find a better balance, we may need to shift our lens a bit.
Play Is the Work of the Child
Dr. Maria Montessori was a physician during the early 20th century. She was the first to say that “Play is the work of the child,” and the evidence of this 150 years later is absolute. Children use play to develop language, dexterity, fine motor skills, cognition, emotional strength, and to practice social skills too.
Many parents gearing up for their elementary-aged children to embrace a new model of learning from home are stumped by the question of what to do with their preschoolers.
The answer is simple: Toddlers and preschool age children absolutely are and should be treated as at-home learners too. When young children have the opportunity to learn independently at home, the dynamics can shift in favor of parents who are trying to do it all.
The first thing is to create a unique work environment for children learning at home (read more here). For a toddler, this would be a simple shelf, cabinet, or cupboard with a limited number of work choices. The work should spark active curiosity and inquisitiveness and be for hands-on, self-guided play. Tasks such as matching, lacing, or shape recognition help reinforce essential developmental skills and also draw the child in. These are the kinds of works you would find in a toddler or preschool-age Montessori classroom because they engage the child and foster independence.
We all know how certain favorite toys become last year’s news. These preschool-aged works should be branded as special and used only during designated work time. The idea is to keep these items as hot commodities, only available at particular times of the day (aka when you need to get your work done).
Creating a Schedule
Every day has its rhythm, and the more structure and predictability we can provide children, the more they feel safe and in control.
Creating a schedule for you and your family is another essential step for successful distance learning. Syncing a family schedule at the start of the day creates boundaries and expectations for everyone. The schedule doesn’t have to be static; creating a new one each day can allow for a lot of breathing room. It can be hand-written on paper or a chalkboard, or shared electronically online, as long as everyone involved can see it and has access.
If you have a parenting partner, a schedule can allow you to shift in and out of different roles throughout the day. If you have an elementary-aged or teenage at-home learner, you can enlist them to mentor your littlest learner too! Big kid input is indispensable to young children. Their modeling and coaching can go a long way toward household harmony and should not be underestimated.
Essential to all adult work-from-home schedules right now is “work time.” For your preschooler, incorporate their special work shelf or cupboard only during scheduled “work time”. This creates space in the schedule when they will be busy with their own learning. If you coordinate your child’s work time with your work time, you just might fall into a new rhythm.
If you’re wondering how to get kids to buy-in to this concept, you can check out this post: Creating Buy-In.
Preparing for Important Work Calls
Inevitably there will be times when taking care of your small child and doing your work are at odds, like what happened to my sister (and pretty much everyone’s sister) this week. So how can parents prevent these types of disasters?
Recognize that transitioning from one activity to the next can throw any toddler’s day into a tailspin. The idea that one would go from running around playing to being shushed and still for someone else’s phone call is beyond their ability to comprehend.
If we present the concept of a work shelf and work time to kids in advance, they will know exactly what to expect when we shift into that mode, which goes a long way in terms of smoother transitions.
Here is a short list of how to prep for your next Zoom call:
Always feed kids before any scheduled calls or important work periods.
2. Mental Prep
Give your child transition warnings, and tell them what the next cycle in your day will be. Say things like, “In 10 minutes, we will start work time. Your special shelf has the matching game on it today!” Talk about their special shelf and the fun works they will get to play with.
3. Get them started
Make sure kids have what they need and know what their choices are.
4. Engaging Work
Make sure you choose toddler works that stimulate their imagination and naturally lead them to learn independently. If you need help finding ideas for these types of materials, or more about Montessori for toddlers and preschoolers at home, start here: The Toddler Playbook.
5. Enlist Help
Whenever possible, utilize older siblings to help mentor younger learners. Younger kids look up to older siblings and love to learn from them, while older kids develop confidence and mastery when helping the little ones.
While creating an at-home learning environment for your preschooler is a proven strategy for fostering independence, it's not going to solve all of your problems. Your child will still interrupt you, cry during your Zoom calls, and need more toilet paper right in the middle of your deal-closing email.
When these things happen, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a first for you. You are being challenged to go beyond extraordinary right now. Remember that this is a first for millions of other parents as well. Working from home and taking care of small children is a new and formidable job.
Ultimately, it is okay to let yourself off the hook for not being perfect. Accept that on some days (most days?) demands are superseding our ability to execute, and so much is out of our control. We are doing unprecedented things as parents, and learning how to do them better each day. We can and should arm ourselves with strategies to make sense of this new normal, but we also need to take a collective deep breath and give ourselves permission to be human.
When you shift your view to see your preschool-age child as a learner, you can bring focus and meaning to their day. You won’t be constantly trying to entertain them. Instead, you are allowing them to explore and develop critical skills independently.
Creating a young-learner work environment will create a new boundary in your home. Kids want and need boundaries, and this work mindset can help set the tone of certain times for certain things, just like teachers do at school.
"Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” -Diane Ackerman