Dubai: “In the middle of the night, my daughter broke down. We rushed to her room to see her crying non-stop!”
This was the experience Dubai resident Sujata Mattoo shared of her eight-year-old daughter’s sudden reaction to home quarantine. After some coaxing, the child told her parents that staying indoors was getting too much for her – plans for her upcoming birthday had been upended, and she simply wanted to go outside to meet her friends.
“The outburst was very scary for me, as I have never seen her in that state before. It may not be a big deal but as a parent it did break my heart to see her like that,” Mattoo added.
At the age of eight, Mattoo’s daughter was at a stage where she could express her frustrations and anxiety coherently and her parents could have a conversation with her to help deal with the stress she was experiencing. For children under the age of six, however, processing these emotions can be a lot harder as communication and language are still in a stage of early development.
How to identify early signs of stress among toddlers
Preschoolers – children up to the age of six – are still learning to discover the world around them and developing basic cognitive, physical and emotional skills. However, there are some signs that parents can look out for to know if they are feeling overwhelmed:
• Change in regular sleep and eating habits
• Change in emotions (showing signs of being sad, clingy, withdrawn, or angry)
• Increase in crying or tantrums
• Nightmares and fears at bedtime
• Physical ailments, such as headaches or stomachaches
• Anxious tics, coughs, or body movements
• Frequent reliance on habits such as hair chewing or thumb-sucking
• Change in bowel movements
However, despite the stress staying indoors for longer than normal can cause, there are some basic tips that parents can follow to cope with the change. Here are some of the top tips and resources that can help sure your toddler remains healthy and happy during COVID-19 restrictions.
Know what they are missing out on
Schools, nurseries and higher education institutions were one of the first public places to close down as authorities kicked off their fight against the new coronavirus. This also means that children have been staying at home for longer than any other member of the family.
Zeena Assam, co-founder and managing director of Creative Nest Nursery spoke about how parents had been complaining of clingy, bored or aggressive children
“Nurseries are closed and parents have been asking us about how to keep their children busy and engaged during the quarantine. What some people do not realise is that nurseries provide a very rich learning experience for children; it is not just a day care facility. Every day at the nursery, a child is exposed to activities that stimulate development in one of the key areas of learning,” Assam told Gulf News.
These seven areas of learning are:
1) Communication and language
2) Physical development
3) Personal, social and emotional development
6) Understanding the world
7) Expressive arts and design
However, despite the challenges, Assam also recommended simple ways in which parents can make the time at home more fruitful.
Nurseries are closed and parents have been asking us about how to keep their children busy and engaged during the quarantine. What some people do not realise is that nurseries provide a very rich learning experience for children; it is not just a day care facility. Every day at the nursery, a child is exposed to activities that stimulate development in one of the key areas of learning.
Keep it simple
“A child doesn’t need fancy toys or a day filled with preplanned activities. What they really need is a parent who is compassionate and understanding, present, and calm. A lot of hugs and cuddles will help reassure the child,” Assam said.
While on one hand a parent could over plan things, on the other they may be struggling to maintain a minimum level of engagement due to working from home or other stressors.
“These are challenging times for everyone, and one of the best things that parents can do for their children is to model behavior that they would like their children to emulate. Using age appropriate language talk to children about emotions and stress and ways of managing them,” Tayyaba Anwar, a paediatrician who has co-authored children’s books, told Gulf News.
The American Psychology Association has provided detailed resources on managing emotions, discussion tips with children, and parent training for protecting children during the crisis here.
Have a routine
Plan your days ahead, a good time to plan the week is during the weekend. Divide the day up into a timetable and stick it on the fridge so that everyone can see it. Have time set out for educational tasks and break it up with fun activities and schedule in free time as well, where the child is free to explore and pick up any activity that he or she likes.
“Children thrive on routines, and the absence of nursery routine can be unsettling for them. Stick to the same bedtime, and meal times; this makes them feel safe. Children at this age should not be sleeping at midnight which is what is happening in some families due to Ramadan,” Assam said.
Anwar spoke about how a clash in work-from-home and distance education schedules can lead to a routine falling through.
“With parents working from home and maybe older siblings doing online learning, it may be difficult to maintain a strict schedule for the younger children, though following a loose routine helps, like having time frames for meals and bedtime,” she said.
Prioritise physical activity
It is essential that you incorporate physical activity into your child’s routine. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health studied 15 countries across the world as the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic and found that the reduced time spent at parks, beaches and community gardens had led to a drop in the already short time children were spending outdoors. In an article published by the journal in April, researchers make a number of recommendations to families, health professionals, teachers and policy-makers on promoting healthy activity, including:
• taking the opportunity to go outdoors, while observing distancing regulations
• incorporating physical activity into children's daily routines -- supported by use of electronic media -- and breaking up extended sedentary periods every 30 to 60 minutes; families should also be encouraged to join in while observing distancing regulations
• keeping children's bedtime and rising time consistent, keeping screens out of the rooms where they sleep and avoiding screen use before bedtime
“Children have a lot of energy and a need to be physically active. Being in quarantine has reduced opportunities for outdoor play,” Anwar said.
“Also, it may be difficult to explain to preschoolers why they cannot go out and play, if that has been a part of their routine. It helps to provide opportunities for physical activities inside the house, such as following along an exercise video,” she added.
Children have a lot of energy and a need to be physically active. Being in quarantine has reduced opportunities for outdoor play. Also, it may be difficult to explain to preschoolers why they cannot go out and play, if that has been a part of their routine. It helps to provide opportunities for physical activities inside the house, such as following along an exercise video.
Get creative with playtime
It is not necessary to spend too much time or money on engaging children, especially preschoolers.
“Preschoolers are naturally curious, so doing simple projects with them like sprouting beans in cotton wool will help them learn in a hands on way,” Anwar said.
Whether you are thinking of buying your children some educational or engaging toys, or thinking of turning scraps lying around at home into an arts and crafts session, having age-appropriate toys can play a great role in keeping children engaged.
“If investing in toys, use open-ended toy such as the Wobbel board (a balance board), a mini-kitchen, inflatable pools, or simple climbing tools. Use cheap and available open-ended resources. A box can be turned into a castle, a masjid, a rocket or a robot. Let your child’s imagination lead the way. Pots, pans, toilet paper rolls, loose parts such as shells and stones can support a child’s cognitive and creative development,” Assam said.
She even recommended making a lockdown time capsule: “Let your child decorate a shoebox and fill it with photos, artwork and other keepsakes from the lockdown. This will be lovely to open up in a few years’ time.”
Tools: A sensory board
A sensory board is a fun, hands-on activity for babies and toddlers to help them touch, explore and learn about different objects all in one place. They have lots of developmental benefits, too, and are really easy to make at home with things you have to hand. Depending on the age of your child, you can stick feathers, stones or marbles onto a board, or make a sensory box with rice, pom poms or cereal as a sensory base providing your child with spoons, cups or baby-friendly tongs to move them around and develop gross and fine motor skills.
Stop unhealthy eating habits
“What they eat has a big impact on how they are feeling. Keep it healthy, and reduce salt and sugar intake. Use meal times to develop their language and mathematics skills. Talk about how the food feels, smells, its shape, etc,” Assam said.
Allow for messy play
You can make playdough at home together, with DIY recipes easily found online, which helps strengthen children’s finger muscles.
“This keeps children occupied for long and is calm and soothing for them. Messy play ideas include tubs of slime, coloured rice, edible jelly, mud, shaving foam with food colour, or paint. Allow your child to explore to their desire. One of our teachers suggests doing this in the bathtub for easy clean up after,” Assam said.
Prioritise reading time
While it is never too early to start reading to your child, you can also turn the reading activity into a physical one.
“Offer children lots of books and read daily with them and extend stories into activities. For instance, if you are reading ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’, you can go on a bear hunt at home, or create a bear from arts and craft supplies,” Assam said.
Online resources you can use to engage your preschooler
The internet is filled with resources that parents can use to keep their preschoolers engaged from Pinterest boards listing outdoor art or math activities you can do with your toddler to blog posts with printable puzzles and activity sheets. However, if you are not sure how to get started, here are some free online resources that you can refer to:
Take a cultural or educational trip
Museums, libraries and arts organisations are stepping up and creating online content for kids or offering free access to existing resources. Some of the trips you can take with your children are:
1. Visit cultural sites, museums and tourist destinations in the UAE through Dubai360.com and visitabudhabi.ae
2. Watch the beluga whales at the Georgia Aquarium
3. E-visit the Louvre Museum in Paris
4. Watch the Cincinnati Zoo livestream
Wiggle Waggle series
Wiggle Waggle is a radio school movement and literacy series aimed at toddlers and preschoolers.
GoNoodle is free for teachers, parents, and children, with over 300 dance videos, mindfulness activities, and more. - https://www.gonoodle.com/
Yoga, mindfulness and relaxation designed specially for kids aged 3+, used in schools and homes all over the world - https://www.youtube.com/cosmickidsyoga
Audible has released over 200 children’s and young adult books for free on their platform - www.audible.com