It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was only March 17 when my daughter learned how to ride her bike without training wheels. It was also my birthday, so it felt like a gift — one with terrific timing, as our home state, Texas, had declared a state of emergency just four days earlier in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Those early days of the new normal were defined by frequent family bike rides, exploring our neighborhood in the welcoming air of an Austin spring.
Fast forward to today: It’s been weeks since our last family ride. The novelty has worn off, replaced by an atmosphere of unending stress and screen time. My wife and I are both still working, thank goodness. But that means keeping our kids moving, as opposed to sitting and watching videos. It has become quite the challenge — vitally important, yet hard to prioritize.
Judging by an informal survey of fellow parents, we’re not alone. This isn’t a problem just for parents who are working from home while juggling child care duties. It’s challenging for emergency workers leaving their kids with family (or at a child care center), and for those trying to raise their children while newly furloughed or unemployed. Finding the time to, say, concoct and construct the kind of backyard obstacle course that goes viral on social media? For most of us, that’s just not happening.
And of course many of the old standbys remain off limits, too. Parks, playgrounds, public pools, children’s museums, indoor gyms, trampoline parks, the Y? Mostly closed. And as the temperature starts to climb, even a neighborhood bike ride might prove too daunting, and too likely to end with one of us carrying my sweaty son half a mile back home. All told, it can be downright impossible for already overwhelmed parents to ensure their little ones get the amount of physical activity recommended by American Academy of Pediatrics — an hour a day for kids ages 6 and older, and a whopping three hours a day for kids ages 3 to 5. What’s a parent to do?
For one father in Minneapolis, the answer was simple: When the mini golf course is closed, bring the mini golf course to you. That’s why Taylor Stein, a local television personality, built a hole in his backyard — replete with a hump in the middle, and obstacles fashioned from two bricks and a large rock — for his children, ages 5 and 2. “Nothing super fancy,” Stein said, “but it occupies the time.” (He added that he was considering expanding his course, “but there appears to be no time to do anything during quarantine if you have children.” Fact check: Confirmed.)
He’s not the only parent getting creative in his quest to keep his kids active and motivated. Tina Smithers Peckham, a freelance writer in Jacksonville, Fla., pays her 3-year-old son to run laps in their kitchen. “He gets a penny for every lap, and really enjoys putting them in his piggy bank,” she said. (Ben Franklin would approve.)
Sometimes, the solution is to bring the outdoors indoors. For example, Sara Rattigan, a public health professional in Malden, Mass., installed a trampoline in her living room, where her bouncing 6-year-old doubles as entertainment for her 10-month-old. And Rachel Camhi, a fifth-grade teacher who lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and two children in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, went even further. In early April, she bought an inflatable bounce house — a roughly 10-foot-by-7-foot playset designed “to fit in any backyard,” according to an online description. She put it in her family living room, where it takes up nearly the entire space.
“Our son is 18 months and climbing on everything,” Camhi said. “We wanted to get him something to climb on, but all the climbing structures take up so much room, and nothing was available.” She said that it takes less than a minute to inflate the bouncy house, and that when the kids are done playing, it deflates to roughly the size of a small piece of luggage and can go in the closet. “It has certainly matched our expectations,” she said. “Our 4-year-old can spend a few hours on it. She brings her stuffed animals on it. Our 18-month-old likes crawling up and down the slide.” When asked what tips she might offer for parents intrigued by the idea, she offers just one: “Get it!”
Francisco Silva, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness executive committee and a Brooklyn native, offered an idea from his childhood: Play “hallway soccer” and “hallway hockey” in your apartment building. (Consider using soft materials, like a pool noodle or a Nerf ball. And for any indoor activity, he advised making sure your childproofing is up to date.)
If your kids are getting bored with their toys or sports equipment, and purchasing a trampoline isn’t in your budget or pace, Dr. Silva recommended refashioning what you already have. As he pointed out, your most recent online purchase includes at least one toy free of charge: the box. (Properly sanitized, of course.) “You can use that for an obstacle course,” he said. Or, as my wife recently realized, it can be repurposed as an easel, which she fashioned so our 5-year-old and 2-year-old could paint en plein air. This occupied the kids for an hour or so, which counts as a huge win in our family — though it also reminded us that putting in a high level of effort can compound the frustration when something doesn’t work.
As any parent struggling to come up with creative ways to bribe their children into remote learning knows, finding the time and energy to reinvent the wheel can be a chore. Which is why, as Dr. Silva noted, there are plenty of online resources to help you get your kids up and active. He mentioned GoNoodle, a popular online exercise video service for kids, and Headspace, which has partnered with the likes of Barbie to create meditation and breathing exercises for children.
Dr. Silva also noted that the benefits of regular exercise extend beyond the physical ones (not to mention, the relief of getting your children out of your hair, even for just a short while). As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, strong evidence shows that regular exercise can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression, and can have positive effects on academic performance, sleep and behavior.
Not everything has to be structured from the top down, either. Jeremy Lyon, Ph.D., a former school district superintendent in Frisco, Texas, who now advises the American Heart Association on its work in schools, noted that the importance of unstructured play has become more apparent to educators, who dedicate time to it (when schools are open, that is). At home, parents can encourage activity by leaving out toys and other equipment, and letting the kids do the creative thinking. “If you have a goal in your backyard, there’s no excuse” for the child not to use it, he said.
You can also model active behavior by getting your own workout in while also keeping your child busy. “For a young child, how engaging that can be to move and control and twist their body,” Dr. Lyon said. “Think of the power of the parents doing a yoga workout with a 5-year-old.” The American Heart Association also notes that household chores, like cooking, can provide an opportunity for parents and children to be on their feet and work on something together. (Bonus: You can teach some math with those measuring cups.)
Whatever you do, be easy on yourself. If you’re not the type to build a world-class backyard golf course, that’s OK. “This is purely observational, but it seems like the families that are doing the best, they do have a high tolerance for a little bit of chaos,” Dr. Lyon said. Suffice it to say, we’re all testing our tolerance for that right now.