It’s 9 a.m. on Day 3 of our new life stuck at home to slow the spread of covid-19.
And here's what actually occurred: Mom served tea to the bears, Mom scrubbed the pigs with a sponge, Mom jumped from cushion to cushion and Mom pureed the fruit and poured it into the popsicle molds. My daughter clung to me for dear life through it all, except for when she dumped the farm animals' bathwater all over the living room floor.
My husband and I are both on board with self-quarantining in our apartment to hopefully put a dent in this pandemic. While we’re keeping our germs to ourselves, my sanity is deteriorating as I’m trapped inside with a bona fide Mama’s Girl. She’s our only child, so it’s just her and me for hour after hour after excruciatingly long hour while my husband works full-time in the home office. (My work gets done when my daughter is asleep.)
My mom likes to joke that my daughter would go back into the womb if she could. That honestly sounds like paradise right now.
Developmentally speaking, “2 years old might be one of the roughest ages" for social distancing, says Arthur Lavin, a pediatrician in Cleveland and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. A 6-month-old offered peas for dinner either wants them or not, but a 2-year-old knows something tastier exists. It’s the age of challenging the world, making vague demands and feeling intense emotions at every turn.
In my home, it means yelling for chocolate cake at breakfast, dumping all of the hair bows into the toilet and sobbing because Mom managed to wrestle your dirty pajama shirt off your body.
It’s time to teach my daughter some independence. In my head are visions of me sipping hot tea serenely with a book while my daughter sweetly plays with her toys in a civilized manner. (One can dream.)
We’re more than a few years away from realizing that scene, sadly. Two-year-olds, on average, have 10- to 15-minute attention spans. Plus they’re touching and tasting everything in sight, so in the time it takes you to sneeze, your toddler is licking the mail slot. At least, mine is.
I spoke to Lavin and other early-childhood experts about how I might achieve safe, independent play during those sacred 10 to 15 minutes of focus. They agree that playing in parallel can give toddler parents a moment to catch their breath.
Stay close and present: Parallel play is when the adult and child are each doing their own activity next to each other. For older kids, the adult can be cooking dinner while the child colors at the table. With toddlers, though, adults still have to be engaged and on their child’s physical level. The goal is to shift from participant to supportive, nearby observer, says Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit that supports parents, caregivers and policymakers on matters of early childhood development. This means I can be quiet and scoot away a bit, but I need to stay on the floor in the play space so my daughter can check in with me every so often. “When she looks up and sees you’re looking at her, you make an observation: ‘Oh, I see you put the yellow blocks in the basket,’" Parlakian says. "You’re just reminding her that you’re there and she has the gift of your attention.” Lavin also says it’s ultimately less stressful to stay in the play space so parents see the action as it unfolds. Hearing loud noises from afar will make parents anxious to intervene.
Keep up physical contact: Staying nearby also means my daughter can get the physical contact with me she needs to handle big emotions. Toddlers learn self-regulation through co-regulation with a loving adult, Parlakian says. She assures me I’m not a monster for wanting my daughter off my body and out of my sweater. Instead, I can offer a different ritual, like putting our hands on each other’s hearts to feel our heartbeats. Or, we can take a break together by lying on the floor and putting stuffed animals on our bellies to practice deep breathing. “You’re creating opportunities to be parallel, but she’s not on you so you feel like you’re a human,” she says.
Pick toys that encourage exploration and imagination: Parlakian recommends open-ended materials like blocks or stickers, or even repurposing things around the house like cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes or sticky notes. “It has to be enough to get their interest going and have enough different possibilities to explore different ways to play,” she says. When Parlakian’s two teens were toddlers, they also got a kick out of cleaning. “Sometimes the most engaging play for toddlers is actually what we say is work,” she says. Let toddlers “wash windows” with a spray bottle of water or ask them to find all of the socks in the laundry basket.
Scale back on toys: It’s tempting to throw lots of options at my daughter right now because we have lots of time to fill. Damon Korb, a behavioral and developmental pediatrician in Los Gatos, Calif., and author of “Raising an Organized Child,” says this approach will actually go against my desire to raise an independent kid because she’ll become overwhelmed. “We want the child to have a set list of options because they aren’t organized thinkers,” he says.
Korb recommends setting up five to 10 zones dedicated to a specific toy or activity. (During our talk I counted 10 toys in my dining room alone.) He and his wife did this for their firstborn: “We had a playpen for balls, a high chair for mushy things, the jumper in the hallway and a little table next to where we’d eat for artwork.” Themed stations also are more sustainable in the long run because they can be refreshed frequently. When one station is done, clean it up and put it away before moving on, Korb says, to teach toddlers that activities have a beginning, middle and an end.
At the end of the day, 2-year-olds are resilient. Everyone I spoke to stresses that isolating at home for however long we’re stuck this way won’t have a long-term negative effect on our toddlers. “As long as your kid is loved and has time to play and explore with you, they are going to be well set up for when we all can get out,” Parlakian says.
Veronica Graham is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass. Follow her on Twitter @vlhgraham.