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What do young children need after school during a pandemic?

September 29, 2020 | Emily Ford Sytsma

It is such a joy to have begun this school year together with your families!  Some of us are in the building, others are at home.  While our hearts are full, I am looking at the children and the teachers (and you, the parents), and I am aware of how much more we all hold in our brains each moment in these pandemic days.

I recently heard another educator call the work we are doing now “pandemic-style engagement.”  Functioning now takes more thinking. We have more input and different input than we’re used to. Digitally-supported life. Extra protocols. It’s a lot to hold.

At school, teachers have been learning some mindfulness practices to use with students in the classes.  This is a way to encourage us all to put all of the extra thinking away sometimes. To be in the here and now. To seek connection with our internal selves, our spiritual needs, and our neighbors around us as well.  Teachers are working to incorporate more play opportunities into these early days, inside and outside.

Even with breaks and breathing exercises, however, we all need to find time for rest and restoration following the school day.  The end of the school day, whether in the building or online, may leave children tapped out.

How can you help your child cope after school ends? 

Get More ZZZZ’s: Children may need a little more sleep now than they did a few weeks ago.   Remember that young children need 10-13 hours of sleep each day.  Think about moving bedtime routines a little earlier in this season. Protect those hours of sleep!

Connection: As our school counsellor, Dr. Judith Schteingart, reminded us at Welcome Back Night, children may need to reconnect with you when they return from home or finish their home-learning work.  If your child is seeking your attention at the end of the day, plan proactively to spend 20 or 30 minutes playing a game or reading a book together.  Time with a sibling may meet this need as well.  Or find time within the week for a Zoom or park playdate with an old friend that your child may not see in class.  (Children are missing seeing other school friends at recess time.)

Sensory Input Reset: Sensory input can be a little like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Each of us has a “just right” place that is probably too much for some and too little for others.

  • Too Little: Teachers have noted that the classrooms are a little more quiet this year.  With masks on and group size limited, there is a peacefulness that many enjoy.  But if your child seeks sensory input, the quiet and small groups and decreased physical input may leave them needing some touch or other sensory input.  It may be a good idea after school or plan for some snuggling time or some massage. Or playful wrestling or running hard in the park.  A dance party with some fast music may help your child unwind as well.
  • Too Much:  On the other hand, some children may have been thriving in the solitude of life at home.  Now they may be overloaded by the socialization of school and the pace of activities here.  These students may need time alone at the end of their work.  It might be important to carve this out, even if siblings are excited about their return.  Ten minutes to an hour may help reset and give the brain a break in order to be ready to cope with the next transitions.
  • Learning at Home Is Unique: Distance-learners as well may need some breaks from the sensory input of the screen. It would be a good idea to schedule quiet time(s) into the day.  Or some may need more interaction than they will get from working alone.  They will benefit from time in the park, bicycle rides, or playtime with a sibling, neighbor, or parent.  Watch your child’s patterns and tweak your schedule to meet these needs.

Stories: Sometimes the best way to recoup after heavy brain work is to get lost in a story.  If stories are life-giving to your child, think about how to make it a special part of the time after school.  It may just mean planning for a time with books (stories read aloud or alone time to look at books) after your child’s after-school snack. If you do not have time, look for videos of stories read aloud.  Or perhaps you would like to start a new chapter book series and read one chapter after school each day.  Maybe it is finding a child-friendly podcast to enjoy together or adding some audiobooks to your child’s story collection and letting them listen while they play.

Move! Even though coming to school offers more movement than many of us were getting last spring during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, there is less movement at school than there is in a typical time.  Home-learners too may have gotten used to more outdoor activity this summer and may be adjusting to sitting still more.  Plan for some family exercise time in a way that works for your family.  Maybe you do a yoga video together after school.  Or toss a ball in the yard.  Or commit to walking to and from school or to going for a walk after learning activities end.

This is a great time to remind families that children need to walk. Children who are ready for school are ready to cut way back on stroller use.  Try scooters and bicycles as a next step if the walk to school feels too far for your child.

Relax: What helps your family relax?

  • Maybe it is music or soothing background sounds to surround you. How about using a warm or cool rice pillow on the eyes, forehead, or shoulders while you listen?
  • Or maybe something visually interesting will help.  Try looking at a live animal webcam or check out CBS Sunday Morning’s two-minute nature videos.
  • Busy hands help many people relax; maybe after school time could include working on puzzles, or drawing, or building with Lego or play dough.
  • What about a bath?  Moving bath time into the after-school routine may help your child relax and save you from some harder transitions later in the day when your child is overtired.
  • Finally, try a guided meditation like the ones you can find on the Calm YouTube channel or the Stop, Think, Breathe app. Or use a daily family devotion guide.  Practicing with guided meditation and prayer can help children gain independence in calming down in hard moments.

One thing we know about humans, even little ones, is that we are built for resilience and adaptability.  Things are new again right now.  In a few weeks many new things will feel normal and we will all have built stamina for this new way of spending our days.  Remind the children (and yourselves) that they have done hard things before.  This may feel hard but we know we can do it, and we can also find ways to feel restored.

Emily Ford Sytsma

Early Childhood Director

Ms. Sytsma began her career as an educator working in inclusive classrooms in the state of Hawaii but found her roots began to grow here at Mustard Seed School when she came to teach in 1996. She joined the preschool team in 2007, after teaching for many years in the Middle School. She finds delight in the preschool’s approach to teaching and learning, inspired by the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. As Early Childhood Director, she seeks to support teachers in their work helping children learn about thinking and creative expression.

Ms. Sytsma’s the mother of a MSS alum and a current student. When not at school, Ms. Sytsma enjoys traveling with her husband and two children. She tends a very simple rooftop garden in Jersey City Heights and on long Saturday mornings, she may be seen taking long walks along the Hudson River and listening to audiobooks or podcasts while organizing her thoughts and getting her heart rate up.

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