Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Stay Home with Preschoolers and Stay Sane at the Same Time

Let me be totally, brutally honest about something for a second here: I love to watch my kids play, but I get very little out of playing their games myself.  With that, then, my number one tip for staying sane is to teach your kids to play independently.  I'm not exactly sure when in the last few decades "homemakers" became "stay-at-home moms," but I seriously think it's a disservice to our kids for us to entertain them like it's our job.

I'd like to suggest that the actual job of a stay-at-home parent (if that's how you'd like to style yourself) is to manage the home.  Part of that, certainly, is helping keep littles happily occupied.  I would argue, though, that I personally do that by setting up the structure that helps my littles learn, grow, and thrive as part of the larger institution of our home, rather than by actually spending hours every day on the floor playing.

That all said, here are my thoughts on how to set the structure so that you and your littles can stay happily occupied at home together, more often than not, anyway.

1) Cultivate interests that you find personally satisfying that are also related to or compatible with caring for your littles and home.  Personally, I like to cook made-from-scratch dinners, read books, make music, and take photos.  Some other options include organizing, cleaning, or decorating your home; arts or crafts that can be done with littles present; gardening, raising animals, or other homesteading activities; writing; or running a home-based business.

2) Organize your space and your day so that there is time for the things you find satisfying.  I don't mean just fitting in some blogging during nap time, either, although you certainly could do that, too.  Read Jane Austin aloud at the breakfast table, do a science project every day until you exhaust your library of experiments, make art together, or put the baby grand in the middle of your tiny living room.  Choose to reflect the fact that you are a whole person, and this shared time together is your life, too.

3) Have a routine.  Maybe the idea of a schedule is too constraining for you, but littles thrive on predictability.  Nobody says you have to watch the clock, but kids will be happier and the day will be smoother if everyone knows the general order of events for the day.

4) Schedule an activity during your biggest block of free time every day. I plan an errand, a messy project, a playground trip, art time, or something that will take a decent chunk of time after breakfast and before our morning walk every day.

5) Take a walk around the block.  Preschooler walks are endless.  Literally walking around our suburban block never takes my brood less than 30 minutes.  If you've got way too much time to kill, do it twice a day.  We take a walk before lunch in rain, shine, snow, or scorching heat.  It's just part of the routine.

6) Read books. We hit the library just about every week and get at least 10 unfamiliar picture books. You could start a blog or goodreads account and write reviews, if that makes you happy (see #1 above).  You can feel virtuous because everybody in education recommends reading aloud to little kids.  Moreover, you can relax a little, because as long as a paid author is developing entertaining plot-lines you don't have to think of any dialogue for Barbie.

7) Give littles the opportunity to help you with household work.  It will take longer if they help, but think of it as learning life skills.  They will also do a terrible job nine times out of ten.  Assign work you don't mind being done terribly.  My kids sweep, wash mirrors, put away laundry, and tidy up.  They are not allowed to help clean the bathroom.  Yuck.

8) Set up something fun for the kids, and then step back and let them play.  I'll put out the blocks, build a road with the littles, then excuse myself to get my camera. After that I can take pictures instead of playing blocks.  Similarly, I'll put out an invitation to play (toys or materials presented in a new way or in new combinations) and leave it for the kids to discover on their own.

9) Rotate toys. My kids will not play with anything if there are more than 10 choices. The research suggests there's a sweet spot for optimal engagement, and it's usually between 6 and 12 options.  I try to put out between 6 and 10 kinds of play items (sample 6: doctor kit, metal cars, farm puzzle, scissors/paper/glue/crayons, juggling balls, monkey puppet).  Every other toy and craft supply is stashed in the utility room. When we get something out of there, it's fresh and new. And nobody's overwhelmed. There's also the bonus of easier clean up when there are fewer toys to strew.

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