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As the first day of winter approaches and COVID-19 cases continue to rise, parents are scrambling to find ways to keep their kids occupied. Here are practical indoor quarantine tips from a mom who has been there.

By Maggie Downs
December 03, 2020
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boy sticking his drawing on window
Credit: Getty Images

As I write this, we're coming off of a few hot—and I mean 111-degrees-hot—months in Palm Springs, California.

I always get angry about the fall weather in the desert. I grew up in the Midwest, so my inner clock tells me that it's a time for sweaters, simmering pots of chili, and the smell of wet leaves. Instead, I find myself sweating through my caftan and gulping down lemonade before the ice melts.

Seasons are topsy-turvy where I live. In the summer, while most of the country is enjoying the sunshine, I'm indoors with cabin fever and the seasonal blues; in the winter, when others are shivering, I'm hiking, swimming, and going for breezy bike rides.

So, last March, when COVID lockdown began, I dreaded the thought that sheltering in place might extend through summer—a season that's already challenging for my family. There's sunshine, yes, but we don't see it inside our condo that's kept purposefully dark with the shades drawn and the doors closed. We battle the long weeks by taking frequent trips to the movies, walking around a museum, or ducking into the mall. But with nowhere to go, what would we do?

For the past few months, I have been inside a small condo with an energetic child, sheltering from record-breaking heat, sooty wildfire air, and our own community, which grew into a coronavirus hotspot.

Finally, the temperature here is dropping for the first time in months. And as the rest of the country is facing the prospect of a pandemic winter, I'm sure others are experiencing the same sinking feeling that I once had.

I'll admit: I spent plenty of time biting my fingernails, crying in the bathroom, making elaborate art projects that my son finished in five minutes, and playing never-ending rounds of Go Fish, but we made it through. And I emerged on the other side with some solid suggestions for making a seemingly endless season feel manageable.

This is what worked for us. And if you need us now, we'll be at the park.

Make Each Day Different

When the days blended together, it made time stretch even longer. So, early in the lockdown, I set a goal to make each day stand out from the one before. Every day, I planned at least one activity to break up the time, whether it was a disco dance party with my son with glow sticks, a soak in the tub with a special bath bomb for me, or an indoor scavenger hunt that was exciting for both of us.

I also reminded myself that each day didn't have to be good—too daunting of a prospect—only different. Even planning just one activity a day gave us purpose, allowed us to anticipate something fun, and made each day feel distinct.

Seek the Outdoors as Much as Possible

Throughout the summer months here, we tried to get outside as much as the temperature would allow, even if that meant waking at sunrise for a quick walk around the block. On weekends, we drove to more temperate locales for hikes (until the day we saw three rattlesnakes and decided to hang up our boots for a while). Being outdoors was an effective way to help my son burn off his busy energy, but connecting with nature also gave us a sense of awe and delight.

Sign Up for Virtual Classes

Virtual classes became our go-to getaways. Juggling, singing, drama, Nigerian cooking—we tried a little bit of everything. We started by trying family-friendly online experiences from Airbnb, where we learned tricks from a magician and spent time with a shark scientist. Then we discovered dance, yoga, and cooking classes on Eventbrite and took a few workshops from Atlas Obscura, learning the secrets of museums and how to explore caves.

Beyond the class itself, it was nice to have something on the calendar to plan for and anticipate. My brain also appreciated the mental stimulation and the classes dramatically broadened my son's interests. Plus, now I know how to make yummy jollof rice.

Exercise Together

My son and I both have indoor bikes (mine is a grown-up version, his is Fisher-Price). When motivation lagged, I signed us up for a virtual race through The Conqueror Virtual Challenges to pedal our way around the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. Each day, we logged several more miles and checked our location on Google Maps. In the end, we received a medal in the mail. This gave us a real sense of accomplishment while helping us stay physically fit.

Of course, you don't have to have indoor bikes to make time for exercise. Consider doing fun indoor workouts together or even setting up your own simple indoor obstacle course.

Break Out the Games

Old gaming consoles came out of storage over our quarantine. My son learned how to bowl on Wii Sports and play Dig Dug on Atari. Although I didn't want to rely on video games for entertainment, they were a welcome break from jigsaw puzzles and Connect 4. The Wii games kept my son moving and Atari games gave me a chance to share something from my own childhood.

Get Creative

We camped indoors, making s'mores in the oven and swapping ghost stories by flashlight. With the addition of a cozy tent, our living room suddenly had an air of adventure. It felt new and special.

A roll of butcher paper provided limitless entertainment. My son drew a city to drive his Hot Wheels around in. I outlined the upper half of his body on the paper, he painted the cutout, and we mailed life-sized "hugs" to friends. He created forests and oceans and troll worlds. The blank page helped his imagination soar.

We took a trip to Greece. That is, I tacked a poster of Greek ruins to the wall, made moussaka, and we donned togas. Then we logged on to Zoom for a virtual street art tour of Athens through Airbnb's online experiences. It was a memorable and fun way to widen my child's worldview, even while staying home.

Give Back

We fostered a couple of litters of kittens from the local animal shelter, and the evening kitten weigh-ins became a highlight of each day. Caring for pets increases overall well-being—animals reduce our stress and anxiety, stave off loneliness, and help us cope with difficult circumstances—and working with the shelter was good for us too. Volunteering boosted our sense of community and made us feel part of something larger.

Set Up Digital Conversations

I filled an iPad with the phone numbers of every relative or friend who might welcome a FaceTime call from a child. When my son was occupied with someone else, it offered enough of a respite to get my own work done or tend to household chores. Meanwhile, my son maintained essential connections. It wasn't the face-to-face time we'd hoped to have with our loved ones, but it brought our families closer all the same.

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