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By UNICEF Australia
24 April 2020

Alice Hall is UNICEF Australia's Program Manager for Early Childhood Development.

Alice advises on community-based early childhood programs in places like the Solomon Islands and the highlands of Papua New Guinea, helping parents, communities and governments implement best practice learning for little ones aged 0-5 years.

She shares with us her top eight tips for busy parents and carers who are balancing work and childcare at home.

Eight tips for busy parents and carers balancing work and childcare at home

I know it’s hard right now for parents balancing so many things in such a challenging time. I am hearing from many parents who tell me they feel a lot of pressure to ensure their children’s development is not impacted – but they only have so much time.

Balancing work and toddlers is so hard, but there are some easy things you can do and strategies you can employ to give your little one the learning outcomes they need.

Even though we’re in lockdown again, your baby or young child still needs the same key things to develop and maximise their brain development. No matter how limited the resources there are always simple activities you can recreate at home.

The first years of life are when a child’s brain is developing at an incredibly rapid rate with hundreds to thousands of connections developing in the brain every second. It’s an incredible opportunity.

The key things that drive healthy development are nutrition, learning and care. Or as we at UNICEF like to say: Eat, Play, Love.

1. EAT - Ensure a variety of different foods

Nutrition is key – having the right nutrition at the right time is really important, including ensuring dietary diversity.

In this time, a key part of nutrition is making sure you still get a broad range of foods across all the food groups and you’re still having a variety of fresh foods to meet those nutritional needs.

Child makes his own food©UNICEF Australia/2020/Simons

This can be hard if there’s limited options to go shopping. One thing you can focus on is how you plan out your meals so that you don’t end up in the routine of the same meals.

As much as you can, aim to have some variety. This will help keep you sane as parents as well as provide what your child needs.

Getting your child involved in simple tasks related to preparing food is also a great way to support their learning.

2.  PLAY – Schedule in one-on-one time each day, even just 15 minutes helps

The important thing in play is that it’s really focused one-on-one time, which is something that just became so much harder for many families.

For parents balancing working from home with their kids, think about if you can structure some time in your day to spend with your child and really focus on that.

Even if you can have just 15 minutes of one-on-one play together, that offers so many opportunities for them to engage and learn and grow.

This time can also be a really nice escape from the world and work for you as well.

Child with artwork©UNICEF Australia/2020/Simons

3. PLAY – Serve and return 

One of the most valuable things for children aged 0-5 is what is referred to as serve and return interactions. The term refers to two-way connection between babies or young children and their carer, where the child offers a cue or signal and the carer returns it.

For example, the child might point at something and the carer interacts and talks about the object they’re pointing to, or the child makes noises and the parent copies these noises. While it can seem like a small and silly game, having that two-way interaction really stimulates their brain and helps your little one learn about the environment that they’re in.

It’s a really easy thing to do in any environment, in any situation – even in isolation. You can explore the household together, you can play and interact with different things in the house, or just look for those moments where you’re really responsive to what your little one is doing.

4. PLAY – Use what you have

Preschool and early learning programs, such as day care, are really important in supporting children’s learning and development not only for education outcomes but also for social and emotional learning, such as how they interact with others.

Children from Vanuatu's Tanna community take time out to play traditional games called Nawakilan
Children from Vanuatu's Tanna community take time out to play traditional games called Nawakilan

They also provide an opportunity for children to understand the structure and rhythms of school, and what’s expected of them in a classroom setting.

Even though your child might be home much more now, it doesn’t mean they are losing those opportunities.

One thing – which I know a lot of parents are already doing – is figuring out ways their children can continue to have social interaction, such as skyping with grandparents or friends. Another option is to focus on a range of social interactions at home, such as getting involved in household tasks like baking. If you’re doing activities like these, then you are already supporting a range of different learning opportunities for your child.

There are also a lot of simple things that you can do with toddlers or young children with whatever you have on hand, such as stacking cups or books. Activities like this teach young children creativity and problem-solving skills related to balance and how they might create structures.

Another option is reusing cardboard recycling that you have around the house to build a structure or a world which you can explore together. You could even make a toilet roll castle (if you can get your hands on some!).

Activities like these stimulate not only that sense of pretend play and imagination but also helps your child develop both fine and gross motor skills at once. Fine motor skills are the foundation skill for writing, among many other things, and gross motor skills are the foundation for any kind of physical activity.

A teacher in Timor-Leste draws with her young students
A teacher in Timor-Leste draws with her young students

5. PLAY - Let your kids experiment

Kids are constantly learning about the world around them, and the main way they do this is through interacting with things.

They might not know how something works, but they’re observing what’s going on all of the time and making hypotheses about it: “I’m seeing this is happening, does that always happen?”. For example, if your child pours water onto sand and the way that it feels is different to when it was dry, then your child starts to learn something about the properties of water.

When you allow children to experiment with things around them, they’re able to start figuring out how things work for themselves. But it also really stimulates that curiosity – and that’s the foundation for learning later in life. If you’re curious about the world around you, and you develop the skills to follow up on that curiosity, then you start to build the skill set and the passion for lifelong learning.

6. LOVE – Love the routine

Love is about protection and managing stress and behaviour.

Children are likely to become restless as social distancing measures see us all living in a more restricted space with the same people and very little variation.

I’m sure many parents have already noticed this over the past several weeks. It’s a lot of adaptation for kids to go from having been in a diverse and active life – where they may have lots of play dates and see their friends or grandparents regularly – to a very contained life.

Try to see if you can create a daily routine in your home that reflects the rhythms you had before. If you used to get up and go to the park, maybe you get up and do some physical activity in the space that you have available to you like little baby aerobics or dancing in the living room.

Keep in mind, a routine doesn’t have to be set in stone. There will be good days and tough days, and this may mean adjusting your routine (or throwing it out the window altogether!) to be responsive to the needs of your child and your family.

Family exercising©UNICEF Australia/2020/Simons

7. LOVE – All the little things you’re doing now will help build your child’s long-term coping skills

One of the best things parents can and are doing right now is to help their children navigate their new world.

One of the things we know about how children adapt and cope in stressful situations is that having a consistent, supportive and loving caregiver helps them build the skills that they need to adapt to that situation.

All the things that you’re doing to support your child and interact with them and help them understand this new routine is a massive contribution to your child’s development. This will help them know how to cope now, as the situation evolves and changes, and also contribute to their long-term coping skills.

8. LOVE – Look after yourself too 

An important role in being a carer (for anyone, young or old), is caring for yourself.

Don’t feel guilty about finding those moments, or things that you can do to look after your own wellbeing. Not only is this good for you, this will ultimately give you the energy you need to be able to care for those precious little ones in your life.

UNICEF and Early Childhood Development

Even in the most remote and challenging settings, UNICEF is working to make sure children not only survive but thrive, ensuring they have the best development possible and are ready to learn at school on time.

In the Asia Pacific region, we support early childhood programs in countries like the Solomon Islands, Laos, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Timor-Leste

Child plays©UNICEF Australia/2020/Simons

See our COVID-19 resources for more advice, tips and activities to support you and your family through the coronavirus pandemic, from UNICEF experts in health, early childhood development, education, and child protection.

A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new strain of coronavirus. The disease caused by the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China, has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – ‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, and ‘D’ for disease.

Formerly, this disease was referred to as ‘2019 novel coronavirus’ or ‘2019-nCoV.’ The COVID-19 virus is a new virus linked to the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and some types of common cold.

The virus is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person (generated through coughing and sneezing), and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus. The COVID-19 virus may survive on surfaces for several hours, but simple disinfectants can kill it.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia or breathing difficulties. More rarely, the disease can be fatal. 

These symptoms are similar to the flu (influenza) or the common cold, which are a lot more common than COVID-19. This is why testing is required to confirm if someone has COVID-19.

It’s important to remember that key prevention measures are the same – frequent hand washing, and respiratory hygiene (cover your cough or sneeze with a flexed elbow or tissue, then throw away the tissue into a closed bin). Also, there is a vaccine for the flu – so remember to keep yourself and your child up to date with vaccinations. 

Here are four precautions you and your family can take to avoid infection:

1. Wash your hands frequently using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub 
2. Cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue, when coughing or sneezing, and throw away the tissue into a closed bin
3. Avoid close contact with anyone who has cold or flu-like symptoms
4. Go to the doctor if you have a fever, cough or feel that it is difficult to breathe