As schools across the country continue to be shut down, and certain states and cities have imposed shelter-in-place directives in order to limit the spread of the Coronavirus, it appears that for the foreseeable future, living under quarantine is going to be the norm. While much has been written about how be productive while working from home and helping your kids keep up with their education, at some point the stress of being cooped up day after day is going to take its toll.
However, in the busy and over-scheduled lives of what had, up until recently, been the norm for many Americans, the reflexive choice to decompress at the end of the day usually involved staring at a screen. Our culture's virtual addiction to screen time is a personal bugaboo of mine, especially when it comes to kids and teens. Books such as Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and Nicolas Kardaras' Glow Kids have made abundantly clear the debilitating effects that too much screen time has had in diminishing our attentions spans and (according to Carr) our “capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
Moreover, our bowed head deference to our screens has also had the effect of isolating us from one another as far too many Americans treat them like 21stcentury scrying devices. As Shelly Turkle, author of Alone Together has commented, “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies and today there is no coyness about is aspirations to substitute life on the screen with the other kind."
It was hard enough to steer ourselves and our kids away from such pernicious habits before this time, but now with tensions and anxieties running high while under quarantine, now is the time to step up and counter those ill-effects with better and more life affirming habits. Hence, for those who now find themselves at home with their kids, I would challenge you to do more than just “make the best” of the situation. Instead, see this time at home as a golden opportunity, a second chance for some, to rethink and rework the way we raise our families. To learn new skills and habits to build up stronger familial bonds that will outlast the current unpleasantness.
So while it is certainly important to allow everyone individual time to read, listen to music, call or FaceTime with friends and family, or even napping, as well as catching up with your favorite shows or a movie, commit yourselves to making time to actively relax with your family. Below are five suggestions for doing so.
1. Making Meals.
Learning one's way around the kitchen is a life skill that everyone should acquire, and what better time to encourage your kids to do so than when everyone is stuck at home. I am a big fan of Michael Pollan's books such as In Defense of Eating and I have learned many ideas from him such as teaching kids how to take inventory of all the food in the house so as to better plan meals and make grocery lists. They should also learn how to decipher ingredient descriptions (and expiration dates!), so as to make healthy eating choices like cutting out sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. As for recipes, crack open that cookbook you've hardly used since you got it as a gift, or try one of the countless websites or video channels out there to find something new or exotic to either make as a family or to take turns making meals for each other.
Furthermore, while it appears that the food supply-chain problems have been alleviated, some families may find themselves with cut work hours or even being outright furloughed, so budgets might be tight. Hence this is the perfect time to learn how to not only get the most beans for your buck, but also learning the fine and subtle art of “substitutions.” Learning how to make do with the ingredients you have on hand is not only economically sound, but is a great way for kids to experiment in the kitchen and even create a dish they can truly call their own. Lastly, as the weather is greening up outside, fire up the grill or if your yard permits, teach your kids how to cook over an open fire. It's fun and relaxing, and yet another great life skill to learn.
2. Game Night
Board games have come a long way since the classic games that many of us grew up with like Monopoly, Risk, or Clue. So if you are thinking that they are incapable of competing with the virtual worlds and fast action of video games, I would seriously beg to differ. There are a whole host fascinating board games available today for all tastes and temperaments, from the simple to the complex and from the fast-paced to the more involved. Not only are they entertaining, but I think they are really one of the most under-appreciated tools for teaching kids critical thinking and social skills such as “how to take turns, thinking ahead, weighing choices and their consequences, team work, and of course being a good sport.” I have written at length about my top picks for the various kinds of games, but here are a few suggestions.
Interesting enough, given the current circumstances, one of the most popular board games for over a decade now has been Pandemic, as well as its many expansion sets. It is a cooperative game where the players take on the roles of various infectious disease experts who are trying to stop a worldwide pandemic. If you do have competitive kids, but you're thinking Monopoly might just be a little too contentious at the moment, try a worker placement game or empire building game. These are games where players gather and trade resources to build up settlements or cities, or in the case of empire building games, armies and territory.
Settlers of Catan is probably the best known worker placement game, where players compete to acquire and trade resources to build up settlements, roads, and cities. Other good ones are Caverna which deals with farming and mining, Everdell which is a fantasy-oriented game, Ticket to Ride is about building railroads, and First Martians which is a very complex game for STEM-oriented teens who must complete a specific set of goals to colonize Mars.
If you are or were a fan of the classic game Risk, you will love popular empire building games such as the Steampunk themed Clockwork Wars or History of the World that deals with historic empires of the ancient world. For those who like science fiction there is Star Trek- Ascendancy or Twilight Imperium. I generally dislike worker placement or empire building games because they take so long to play (depending on number of players, Twilight Imperium can take up to 8 hours to complete!), but once again, given the current circumstances, they are the perfect activity that can be played in blocks over the course of a few days.
If you just want a little one-on-one, try Hive which is an interesting combination of chess and dominoes, Onitama which is a Japanese variation on chess, or the classic Mancala which can be played by kids of all ages. My personal favorites though are mystery games, since they are great for teaching kids elementary logic and deductive reasoning. Some good choices are Mysterium, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.
3. Arts and Crafts
During the day I work for a major Hobby retail store, and between the time when the schools in our state closed and the state itself was shut down, we were inundated with customers. Between their panicked runs for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they stopped by to stock up on arts and crafts supplies. The most common response I heard from parents was, “I need something to keep my kids busy” or “I'm trying to get my work done and my kids are driving me nuts!” While, I am certain that most of them are speaking out of the frustration of having to adjust to a new situation, their complaint highlights another negative byproduct of our overly-busy culture. We tend to look at engaging in some artistic or craft-making endeavors either as only for the “artsy” types or in pragmatic terms, i.e. something we tell our kids to do to pass the time.
This is unfortunate and we really should impress upon our kids that creating something of beauty and craftsmanship is for everyone and is its own reward. Not only does it allow them to explore their creative sides, but it also teaches kids patience, attention to detail, and an appreciation for seeing a project through to the end. Furthermore, in a world of cheap mass produced products, there is something to be said about encouraging kids to learn how to make a one of a kind item that they can be proud of or give as a gift.
There are any number of arts or crafts that can be done on the cheap, such as drawing or painting, but also origami, knitting, weaving, or even (as I tried with my own kids) candle making. For older kids, a simple wood carving kit is easy and cheap enough to obtain or even a simple pocket knife can be used to whittle or carve wood. Lastly, finding a quality instructor is as easy as going onto YouTube where there are hundreds of DIY or instructional videos on there.
4. Audio Dramas
Reading is always a worthwhile activity, either alone or out loud to kids. Audiobooks are also fantastic since you can get some “reading” done while working around the house or driving. However, there was a time before television when families used to sit around a large radio and listen to audio dramas for entertainment such as Westerns, science fiction, mysteries, and the classics works of literature.
Well, believe it or not, audio dramas never really went away and are alive and well on YouTube and podcasts. Furthermore, I have been amazed to see how there are now many retro pieces of furniture of classic radio or stereo designs, that are fully compatible with our modern devices. So if your kids absolutely must make use of their personal devices, then try gathering in a room, dim the lights (better yet listen by candle-light), and treat your family to something different. You won't regret it.
Especially since it will probably give your children's imagination a much needed workout. Also, when it comes to multi-episode dramas, resist the temptation to binge listen. Take your time! Not only is delaying episodes a great leveraging tool to make sure kids are keeping up with their chores, but it also teaches them time management and delaying gratification.
If you are a Star Wars fan, then check out the radio dramas NPR did of the original trilogy starting back in 1980. Ever wonder how Luke knew “Biggs” or why he needed those “power converters” from Tosche Station? Well in the Star Wars (Episode 4) series there is an hour's worth of material that occurs before the movie begins that is not in any of the other movies. If even the extended cut of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy was still not enough for you, try the 13-hour radio drama done by the BBC and NPR playhouse that had Ian Holm voicing Frodo Baggins (as opposed to playing Bilbo in the movies).
For something to reinforce your family's faith, check out Focus on the Family's Radio Theater that has recorded some high-quality productions of classic children's stories such as the “Chronicles of Narnia”, “The Secret Garden”, and “Oliver Twist”. Right next door to Focus on the Family in Colorado is the Augustine Institute that has produced audio dramas on the lives of saints such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick. They have also made one about the story of Robin Hood based on the 1912 book by Henry Gilbert, that has retained a lot of the Christian references that have been taken out of later retellings of the tale.
Lastly, there is a small family outfit called Golden Key Audio that is rather new to the scene, and what they lack in epic production values they more that make up in telling down-to-earth and relatable faith-building stories. They also have many other videos on the Saints and the Christian origins and history behind ordinary things, so they are well-worth a listen.
Other audio drama suggestions would include a series of short stories by Ray Bradbury called Bradbury 13, a dramatization of the novella by Joseph W. Campbell Jr. called Who Goes There which was the basis for the movies “The Thing from Another World” and John Carpenter's “The Thing”, and a website called Old Radio World where you will find a huge archived selection of radio dramas from every genre you can think of. Two notables there are a wonderfully produced multi-episode retelling of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes that really captures the story's humorous moments that are often missed in reading the novel, and the 15-part dramatization of the Catholic-themed science fiction novel A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller Jr.
5. Make a Pella Run
No matter how many great activities you do with your kids, eventually (and especially since Spring is in the air) everyone will reach their limits of being inside and will feel the need to get out. Local parks and pathways are fine options, while still allowing you to be able to comply with the ordinances concerning congregating in public and maintaining proper social distancing. Sometimes, however your family will just need a change of scenery. That's when it's time to make a “Pella Run”.
I learned the term back in 1999 when I grudgingly listened to a taped lecture a member of my church gave me about making preparations for Y2K. According to the early church historian Eusebius, based on their reading of the Olivet Discourse found in Luke's Gospel (21:21), the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem fled to a town named Pella (in what is now Jordan) before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple there in 70 A.D. Thus in the context of the talk about Y2K, the notion was that if things got too bad in an urban setting, Christians should have their own “Pella” to go to where they can get away from any civil unrest.
Of course, no such unrest occurred and I never had to take Iron Maiden's advice and "run for the hills", but the name and idea stuck with me. Ever since then, I have always made it a point to plan little one-day outings to some place that is away from the light and noise of the city such as a state park or forest, trails along the rivers near where I live, or to visit some geological feature. I used to use a DeLorme atlas and gazeteer to find unusual places to go, but now by just zooming in with Google Maps in the satellite setting in any location, you can find all manner of unusual sites or landmarks for all of your serendipitous road trips. Plus, you can listen to some audio dramas during the long drives!
So if your are able, pack up some meals, some hiking supplies, and a good first aid kit and head for the hills. It's a perfect opportunity to take some nice pictures and to find those hidden local gems that you can visit in the future when things get back to “normal”. No matter where you go, what's important is to make it about spending time with your family and getting away from all their worries of the world and the dour news cycle that permeate our days for a brief period of time. For hopefully, the more time you spend as a family, when this pandemic finally passes, the better and stronger your family will be in the future. Good luck!
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