Social distancing has become our new normal amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We know it’s vital to protect ourselves and others, particularly our loved ones and neighbors who are most medically vulnerable. As parents of toddlers, we first and foremost worry about our children’s health. But it’s normal to also feel anxious about the impact on our little ones’ social and emotional development. So, how can I minimize any negative effects and help my toddler through social distancing? And what are some engaging quarantine toddler activities to help us through this time?
As a mom and school counselor, I’ll admit I’ve pondered this question quite a bit. Toddlers are at such a critical age for budding social skills and emotional regulation. While social distancing with my two-year-old, I try to stay focused on what is in my control: Reflecting on what we know to be true of child development and responding accordingly. I want to share with you 6 key tips to feel confident in helping your toddler through the challenge of social distancing. You’ll also have an opportunity to snag some free ideas for daily schedules and quarantine toddler activities!
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6 Key Tips and Ideas for Quarantine Toddler Activities
# 1 Provide opportunities for your toddler to develop autonomy.
If you ever took Psych 101, you may remember hearing of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. In short, Erikson tells us that the greatest social/emotional need of children between 18 months and three years of age is developing a sense of autonomy. When given ample opportunities to complete independent tasks and make age-appropriate choices on their own, our little ones develop a sense of will. This foundation provides the ability and self-assurance to navigate new tasks and challenges in the future. In contrast, toddlers who are heavily controlled or not given a chance to overcome obstacles on their own may experience feelings of shame and doubt. In the wake of dark times, it’s easy to want to cater to our little ones and make their lives as easy as possible. However, helping too much (in other words “helicopter parenting”) can do them a disservice.
How to help your toddler build autonomy while social distancing
Toddlers make this one easy on us. Let’s be serious, they are constantly asking for opportunities to do things without our assistance or interference! Your toddler will have no problem coming up with ideas on their own. Just watch, listen, and fight the urge to say “no” if the task is safe and appropriate. But just in case, here are few ideas to get started.
Offer controlled choices
Provide your toddler with as many “controlled choices” as possible throughout the day. In other words, you pick and provide safe, healthy options and they have the final say. (If your toddler isn’t very verbal yet, you can simply present visible choices and ask them to point. My son has been choosing which veggie he wants with dinner this way since his first birthday. He’s usually so excited to choose he doesn’t notice he’s getting tricked into eating them!) Here are a few examples:
- Would you like cereal or pancakes for breakfast?
- Which shirt do you want to wear today, yellow or green?
- Do you want to play with chalk or bubbles in the driveway?
- Who do you want to FaceTime, Grandma, or Aunt Betty?
- Which book do you want to read, Make Way for Ducklings or Busy Noisy Farm?*
*Two of our favorite books to read at home these days!
Allow time to practice and learn self-care skills
Social distancing has given us the gift of time at home. Extra time we may not otherwise have for our toddlers to practice those painstaking self-care skills at great length. Since you’re no longer in a rush to get out the door, here’s a few tasks for your child to try. Resist the urge to help or intervene unless they are showing they want and need assistance. Instead, be their cheerleader and encourage them to keep trying!
- Undressing/dressing (start with undressing for younger toddlers)
- Taking off/putting on socks & shoes
- Brushing/combing hair
- Drinking from an open cup (don’t worry, see #5)
- Wiping up spills
Remember, your child does not need to look perfect, you won’t be going anywhere! You might start with a controlled choice to get their buy-in. For example, “Who do you want to comb your hair, mommy or you?”. Toddlers will take the bait nearly every time! 🙂
Say yes to their ideas
If no one could get hurt and they aren’t damaging property, affirm your child’s independent ideas with a “yes”. Hey, if they want to wear their Halloween costume all day, there’s never been a more perfect time. If you are typically a parent that steers your child away from messy quarantine toddler activities (guilty!), remember this may be an ideal time to let loose. And if your toddler is wanting to help you with day-to-day household chores, let them have at it! Toddlers love assisting with tasks such as sorting laundry, putting away toys, and filling the dog’s bowl, to name a few. Give them a couple of chances to learn and they may surprise you.
#2 Help your toddler through social distancing by actively playing with them.
Sadly, playdates, daycare, and preschool have come to a screeching halt for many toddlers. At this age, children mostly engage in “parallel play”, or playing side-by-side; however, this is still a valuable social experience. Parallel play presents opportunities for little ones to learn essential problem-solving skills such as taking turns, sharing, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Some toddlers may have siblings to fill this void, but many (like my son) do not. Our toddlers need us to be their playmates during these challenging times.
How to mimic parallel play with your toddler
Sure, I’m often nearby and sitting on the floor with my little guy, but it does require some conscious effort to truly engage in play with him. When we play with our children, we can help to create some of the organic parallel play experiences that took place in our pre-COVID-19 lives. First, leave your phone on the counter or in the other room. Then, model for your toddler what to do when you both reach for the same block. Or need to take turns sharing the red crayon. At this age, our actions are so much more impactful than our words.
Balancing independent & parallel play for the work-at-home parent
So you may agree that parallel play is important right now, but you probably also have 50 unread emails in your inbox and 3 Zoom meetings this afternoon. I’m right there with you. With my husband gone most of the day as an essential worker, it’s no easy task to stay afloat while working from home with a toddler. Quite frankly, you probably prefer to know how to get your child to play independently without a screen! I get it. While you’re here, be sure to check out my top five tips for working at home with a toddler.
The best way to get your toddler to play alone is to first play with them. Imagine your child has an “attention bucket”. For most little ones, that bucket has to be filled to the brim before they will want to play independently. After you have spent a good 15-20 minutes actively engaged with your toddler, they will likely begin to venture off on their own. Act quickly and quietly! This is your window of opportunity to discretely sneak away and tend to those emails.
Consider scheduling some parallel playtime together before your virtual meetings. This will help to decrease acting out and attention-seeking behaviors while you’re working. And if push comes to shove and Elmo has to get you through that last call of the day, don’t beat yourself up. You’re certainly not alone. We are in a crisis and we do what we can.
#3 Develop a consistent routine for your toddler’s “new normal”
Routine and predictability make toddlers feel safe. This feeling of security is essential for our little ones to be emotionally available to learn new skills. Children, starting in infancy, are highly skilled at picking up on emotions and stress from their caregivers. They notice and thrive on seeing patterns in their day-to-day. Without question, our toddlers have noticed a change in their lives over these past few weeks. Creating new predictable patterns can help our little ones feel safe and secure in their new social distancing lives.
How to help your toddler follow a predictable routine while social distancing
Rather than just describing a potential social distancing toddler schedule, I’ve gone ahead and made one for you! Request a copy of my FREE “Social Distancing Schedules for Toddlers” below. This detailed download includes two full yet flexible weekly schedules, 35 bonus ideas for quarantine toddler activities, and more helpful tips on how to implement your new routine!
Make this a time of productivity & growth with FREE quarantine toddler activities & schedules!
#4 Create opportunities for your toddler to interact with others
By about 24 months, most toddlers have made leaps and bounds from their “stranger danger” days and are eager to meet and interact with people other than us. Here are a few ideas on how to create opportunities to practice social skills while social distancing.
How to safely help your toddler engage with others through social distancing
Host a virtual playdate
Invite a playmate and their parent from playgroup, preschool, or swimming lessons to join you and your toddler on a virtual playdate. It’s amazing to see our children light up just by seeing a friendly face. They can practice saying a friendly hello, show their friend a new toy, and share some giggles. Helping your little one maintain these social connections will be a great benefit when it comes time to transition back into society.
FaceTime with relatives
Let’s face it, grandparents are dying to see their grandbabies. FaceTime has quickly become one of our favorite toddler quarantine activities! Consider making a “phone book” with photos of loved ones and allow your child to choose who they want to call (remember the #1 tip- autonomy!).
Interact with nature
We are fortunate to live near a pond that’s not frequented by neighbors. My two-year-old loves visiting the ducks and geese 2-3 each day. Here, we can safely practice saying “hello” and “goodbye” and respecting personal space. Some days the animals are not out, or it is raining and we cannot visit. Does this upset him? Absolutely. But it’s a healthy opportunity to process and validate big feelings such as sadness and disappointment.
A note about screen time
All screens are not treated equally! Interactive video chatting is not the same as your toddler watching TV in solitude. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics gives the okay for children under 18 months to interact with loved ones this way.
#5 Talk to your toddler about COVID-19 (yes, really)
Our toddlers are smart. They notice us zooming by the neighborhood playground when we’re out for a bike ride. Our little ones have not forgotten about their friends and teachers, even if they haven’t seen them in weeks. They feel our stress during the workday, even when we do our best to hide it. We must talk to them about COVID-19 and social distancing at a toddler level. These repeated conversations will make it so much easier when it comes time to return to our “old normal”.
How to explain COVID-19 in toddler speak.
- Use child-friendly language. For example, “There is a bad germ called COVID-19. We need to stay home because that is the healthy and safe choice for us right now.”
- Validate your toddler’s feelings. Here’s what I say to my son: “I see you’re sad we can’t go to the playground. It’s okay to be sad, you have so much fun there! It isn’t a healthy choice today, but we will go again soon.”
- Identify your own feelings. Toddlers learn how to identify and cope with their feelings based on their observations of us. Use “I feel” statements around your child when confronted with personal social distancing challenges. “I feel sad we can’t play right now. We will play in a few minutes after mommy’s meeting.”
- Provide reassurance and support. Remind your toddler you are always there for them. “I’m proud of you. I love you. I will do everything I can to keep you safe.”
#6 Help your toddler through social distancing by taking care of their parents
As parents, we can be a tremendous help to our toddlers by taking care of ourselves throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In our home, this means on my husband’s days off, we each spend some one-on-one time with our son so that the other can have a few hours alone to recharge. It’s amazing what a few moments of solitude can do for a toddler parent!
As an elementary school counselor, I consistently ask my students to consider adopting the following two mindsets during challenging times. I try to practice what I preach, as these coping skills are equally important for us as adults!
Self-Care Mindset #1: Focus only on what is in your control
- We can’t control how long we will be asked to practice social distancing. We do not have a say in how this pandemic will impact our economy and financial assets. And sadly, we ultimately do not get to choose if we or our loved ones test positive for this virus. When we allow our thoughts to dwell on factors outside of our control, anxiety begins to build. So what can we do? Here are a few examples.
- Use the extra time at home to take care of projects such as cleaning out your toddler’s closet.
- Cut down on unnecessary online spending to save money.
- Practice healthy habits as a family such as washing hands and staying home.
Self-Care Mindset #2: Focus on the positives
Without question, the driving force behind social distancing is something we never wanted to happen. However, staying home provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for us as parents and children. We have been given the gift of extra time with our kids while they are small. Each day is a chance to create lasting memories and form new family traditions. Remember, they are only little for such a little while.
The last thing you need to know about social/emotional development and quarantine toddler activities
You’ve now read up on 6 key ways to help your toddler and his or her development through social distancing. You are doing all you can to help your little one through this challenging time. Without question, you are a loving, intentional, and positive parent!
As parents, we sometimes feel like it’s our job to worry about how these early experiences will impact our children. I totally do! As a school counselor who has worked with thousands of children over nearly a decade, I want to assure you that young children are incredibly resilient. Especially children like yours who receive fantastic support from caregivers.
I want to leave you with one final thought. Remember it on the tough days. Refer back to it in the moments you may wonder if you are doing enough.
Your child will gain new values & skills through the challenge of social distancing. Recognizing the importance of family, imagination, patience, and flexibility. These assets will better equip them conquer to future obstacles down the road. It is through the most difficult moments in life that we grow the most.