Caring for Preschoolers at Home

Many of us suddenly find ourselves at home for weeks with our preschool-aged children. The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is sharing ways to talk to your children during this time; to create structure and routine; and to continue to develop their social emotional skills.

Key points

  • Create a daily schedule with your children. Draw pictures (or get them online) of each “activity” and a general time frame for when they can expect each thing to happen.
    • Include the activities similar to those your child does in preschool: mealtimes and snacks, handwashing, outdoor time (recess), “learning time,” and rest.
  • Maintain, as possible, regular mealtimes and family routines. If you usually go to dance or soccer practice in the afternoon — go to a field instead and exercise outside together. Consistency is important in helping young children feel secure and safe.
  • Practice your own self-care when possible. Short breaks from the family (solo walks, a bath, or a phone call with a friend) will help you manage your own stress.

Build and practice important social emotional skills

  • Model empathy and kindness by looking for ways to be helpers in your community. Offer to run errands for an elderly neighbor, make and drop off cards to a nursing home.
  • Create a kindness jar — write down all the acts of kindness you see your children doing, (e.g. helping with a chore, sharing a toy with a sibling, making a picture for a friend, etc.) Then, periodically select a paper from the jar and read it out loud with the family.
  • Create a feelings chart or use stickers or pictures to help your child communicate how they are feeling each day. Use books and pictures to discuss emotion words like angry, scared, and worried.
  • Create a sharing time each day at bedtime or mealtime. Ask a daily question: “What was the best part of your day/the worst part of your day?”  “Name one thing that felt good today and one thing that felt hard?” “Name one kind thing you did today.”

Manage fears or worries

  • Keep communication open, but non-alarmist. Be honest but reassuring and keep it fact-based and developmentally appropriate.
    • Here is some possible language: “There is a new virus called the coronavirus that you may have heard about. Scientists and doctors think that most people will be ok, especially kids, but some people might get pretty sick. We are all going to do our part to not spread the germs that cause the virus, so we’re staying home from work and school for a few weeks. We’ll go back to our usual routine soon, but until then, we get to spend some time together.  Mom/Dad/Caregiver will need to work sometimes, and you get to learn at home too. We’re going to make a plan together for when we’ll work and when we’ll play.”
    • Children will react both to what you say and how you say it. They will pick up cues from the conversations you have with them and with others.  More information from the Centers for Disease Control here.
  • Children can feel afraid and not express it. Encourage your child to talk about their feelings. Validate their emotions and provide reassurance.
  • Limit the amount of COVID-19 news you consume as a family, especially in front of young children. Don’t assume they are not listening, even if they are not actively watching.

Healthy habits

  • Reinforce healthy routines like handwashing, healthy eating, and exercise. Keeping everyone’s immune system humming is an important step to avoiding getting sick.
  • It’s more important to keep the learning positive and fun than to worry about maintaining academic skills for preschool-aged children. Enjoyable experiences such as reading together, storytelling, and games are fun ways to keep learning going without putting too much stress on young children.
  • Do use technology as a tool for keeping kids connected with friends and family. Zoom is a great tool to spend time with a grandparent or cousins online. Seeing their family well and having fun together can be very reassuring to young children. (Continue to be mindful of recommended guidelines for limiting screen time in accordance with your child’s age, however.)