So how exactly have only children been spending their days social distancing? By learning, exercising, and having fun, thanks to these great ideas from their parents for kids of all ages.

By Rudri Bhatt Patel
May 20, 2020
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Social distancing during the pandemic has forced every parent to get more creative when it comes to keeping their kids entertained. But for parents of only children, no playdates, school, or playground meet ups, has made life particularly tough. Not only have we been trying to find ways for our singletons to fill their days without interactions with other siblings or peers, but we've been worrying about how all this time alone is affecting them.

"Our culture assumes only children are lonely children whatever their age," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist, and author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. "And the pandemic has intensified and underscored that thinking." But the truth is that all children, whether they have siblings or not, are social creatures. When forced to social distance, the onus is on parents to find activities to keep them occupied, explains Dr. Newman—which we know is easier said than done, of course.

To help, we chatted with experts and fellow parents of only children to see how they've been navigating life home alone. From toddlers to teens, here are the clever ideas they've come up with to keep their kids having a ball on their own.

Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers

Young children need supervision and parental input, explains to Dr. Newman. Kristy Alpert, mother to 9-month-old Milo, chooses to keep it simple because her son loves to explore while crawling. "I spend every day on my hands and knees exploring our living room and the backyard the way he sees it. I started taking him out in our front yard after it rains to go on earthworm hunts." Alicia Graves, mom to Taran, an 11-month-old, says "with the stay-in-place order, our routine hasn't changed much, but our plans have." Graves keeps her only son busy with a "five-piece obstacle course complete with a ball pit and tunnel in place of the park. He and his kitten enjoy crawling and playing in it." They also take daily walks for enrichment and exercise and plan on taking Milo to a wild animal drive-thru park soon.

For children that are slightly older, Christina Mealy, mom to 3-and-a-half-year-old Nora, makes it a point to explore the outdoors by "eating meals outside, playing soccer and tag, and trail walks." She encourages imaginative play with some version of family, doctor, and school. Nora likes to "change outfits numerous times a day, often donning dresses over her pajamas, putting on shows on her bed in the bedroom, and setting up seating for me and her dad." Other activities include building forts, baking, and reading.

It's safe to say preschoolers see the pandemic a little different than parents. According to his mom, Allison Landa, 4-year-old Baz "loves the quarantine and they are planting veggies, playing with toys, and enjoys time with family."

For Tonya Abari's 5-year-old daughter, long nature walks are a must. "Many days I give her a book and binoculars so she records her sites. She loves birds, so there are many birdwatching days." Abari's daughter also likes reading, artwork, and science. She is comfortable putting her in charge of "watering plants and patio herbs." Other ideas include free online dance classes, counting in context when baking, and handwriting workbooks.

Kids Ages 6 to 8

As children get older, Dr. Newman encourages a switch to independent activities which are more feasible. "Suggest a tea party or building an office or sports arena with blocks and game materials you have in the house," she says. Tara Mandarano, mom to 6-year-old Eve, lets her daughter play hairdresser, even if it involves her bangs tied up with a scrunchie so she looks like a unicorn. She teaches her practical life skills, too, like how to wash dishes and help her with laundry. Another creative activity Eve likes is "writing a companion mini-book to the Captain Underpants series that features a female superhero," says Mandarano.

Nora's 6-year old daughter, Olivia, enjoys art. "She loves the Art for Kids Hub YouTube channel with drawing tutorials, chalk art, creating folded paper zines to fill in as books, and making sun prints—you buy cyanotype treated paper and then find leaves, flowers, whatever you want, and develop them in the sun." Priscilla Blossom's son, William, also 6, likes to "play with his cars, Legos, draw, practice yoga, and play video games." They have also worked on a chalk mural on their balcony.

Pooja Makhijani, single mom to an 8-year-old daughter, uses this time for baking. "I can supervise brownie-baking or macaroni and cheese-making during the day." Her daughter also loves "to sing and has been making elaborate song-and-theatre videos using basic technology."

Kids Ages 8 to 10

For 10-year old Issac, mom Pat Tanumihardja says he "has been going out into the woods behind our house to build a fort." He packs survival gear into a backpack with granola bars, a pocket knife, a survival handbook, and a journal. Tanumihardja says she recently bought walkie-talkies so they can keep in touch while they are outside. He also loves to bike and sprints up and down the street on a hill.

Elka says her 10-year-old son, Uli, "is an extremely physical and high-energy kid. He usually needs three to four exercise outings a day, including bike riding, hiking, walking or other forms of activity. She says, "as an only child we have to really step up to more active play with him since he doesn't have other kids for playtime." Through stay-at-home orders, "he's become a great tree-climber."

Tweens

Barbara's daughter, Anastacia, 11, loves time in the kitchen. "She has cooking competitions with her dad and she takes on "the voice of the chef on a show—explaining what she's making, how she's preparing the dish, as well as flavor profiles." Baking also occurs with her Girl Scout Troop on their Zoom meetings and she tries out new recipes. Other activities include an online art class with good friends—and of course there's time for TikTok and YouTube, too.

Concerned about too much time online? "The pandemic is a time to relax rules you may have for digital time," says Dr. Newman.

Lisa Sparrell's daughter, Serafina, 12, has learned how to use a sewing machine and made a couple of projects. She is still working on schoolwork during the day, including a language arts project which is writing a sci-fi novel. She is independent and makes her own lunch and is working on a social studies project which involves constructing a family tree including researching relatives alive in the 1800s.

Cooper, 12, wakes up and settles into his desk for remote school. His parents have added Khan Academy into the curriculum and a word of a day on a flashcard. "He walks the dog, has piano practice, and makes time for a workout that his lacrosse coaches have structured." Cooper has free time during the afternoon and that means playing Fortnite with his friends. His mom says, "they all play remotely and since it's the only way he can really interact with his peers, we have basically abandoned any pretense of screen time limits." After dinner, the family might play UNO, Sorry, Yahtzee, or Palace.

Teens

Melissa Hart's daughter, Maia, 13, has taken on a large-scale project during stay-at-home orders. She and her dad "designed and built a fish pond in their backyard." The pond is surrounded by rocks and with a waterfall and Maia has worked with her father "on mathematical formulas much like she is studying in seventh grade math to determine how many gallons of water the pond holds and how many fish can live in the pond safely."

Deborah Rockwood's son, Evan, 15, is attending online school during the day, but during his downtime he connects with friends via online gaming, FaceTime, and Snapchat. He stays up late on the weekends virtually hanging out with friends with online card games and movies.

Single mom Stacy was most worried about her 15-year-old daughter Elliot's extracurriculars when it came to social distancing. "She feared the pandemic might put her dance training on hold," says Stacy. "But her dance teachers and coaches have kept the same schedules and transitioned their classes to Zoom." Elliot is also spending time on long FaceTime calls with her best friend where they exchange TikTok videos, take Buzzfeed quizzes together, and even make brownies simultaneously. They have also watched several movies together like Clueless, Notting Hill, Love Actually, and the Harry Potter series.

Viha Umashankar, 16, is working on a community sourced art installation that is scheduled during the next school year at the city's art center. "Viha has started work on this long before COVID-19 with a few in-person crane folding community events in December. When things started to shut down, she set up a simple one-pager website for anyone who wanted to participate remotely." Viha is an artist at heart and origami cranes have become an essential stress relieving tool.

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