On Christmas Eve, it will have been 286 days since social distancing became our new normal and our school, work, and home lives merged into one, sometimes overly close, space. The constant togetherness has many Outer Cape children and parents looking forward to the 12-day school vacation ahead with more trepidation than joy.
Compounding the problem of stay-at-home fatigue: our usual celebrations are curtailed — visits with grandparents and friends, too — and money is tight. Yet we all know our families need some good times more than ever. We asked three local authorities for some practical advice on getting through this holiday break as happily as possible.
Routines and Plans
During stressful times, says Nancy O’Connell, a recently retired integrated preschool teacher from Wellfleet, don’t forget that comfort can come from having a plan and schedule for how the days will go. While you may feel the pressure to make this time special, “focus on creating a routine,” O’Connell says. “It helps children feel safe and secure.”
Routines should involve play, O’Connell adds, and for younger children, two kinds of games are especially important. Hands-on, imaginative play is one. Make playdough, for example, and notice all the free play that follows.
Physical games are important, too, she says. “Red Light, Green Light” is a game she likes because it encourages children to experiment with self-regulation. And it always brings on lots of laughter.
Still, older children, especially, will want to know something different can happen during their time off from school. They should definitely be involved in planning it. Our family made a list together, so everyone could have a say. It includes creating a family cookbook, looking at old pictures, having restaurant nights, exercising every day, having a spa day, going on moonlit walks, drawing a family tree, writing and putting on a play, and spending a whole day without screens.
Yvonne Barocas is the kind of person you’d want to have in charge of your family’s homemade vacation. A retired teacher and school psychologist, she and her husband, Moe, owned Abiyoyo, Wellfleet’s toy store, for almost 40 years. But her top piece of advice for this school break isn’t about any particular toy or game. It’s this: “Spend as much time outdoors as the weather will allow.”
Theresa Fallon, a massage therapist in Wellfleet who has been home-schooling her nine-year-old daughter Shannon since September, is for that. They have come up with a way of hiking in tandem with another family. “A new friend on Shannon’s hockey team moved here from Philadelphia this summer,” explains Fallon. “So, we are going to show them woods paths in the National Seashore — but from a distance.”
Fallon and her daughter have already started drawing colorful markers — temporary blazes for some favorite trails. “Next week, during school vacation, we will go out and flag a trail,” she says. Their friends will follow, and they plan to cheer them across the finish line. Their neighbors get to learn about a good trail, and everyone gets the chance to see the face of a friend for a few minutes. Even if you don’t have a brand-new friend, marking trails for tandem walks is a fun outdoor adventure that allows for plenty of physical distancing.
Sketch Pads, not Screens
“Because children are on screens all day for schoolwork,” Barocas says, “downtime should try to minimize any more of that.”
Molly Newman, a teacher at Nauset Regional Middle School, agrees. Newman’s own family — she has a daughter in elementary school and another in middle school — has taken up drawing as one “old school” way to spend time together.
“We each have our own sketchbook,” Newman says, “and each of us takes a turn picking a subject to draw.” Those have included a dragon, a queen, the family dog, a flower. They don’t labor over their pieces, she says: “We spend about 15 minutes drawing our subject, then we all compare. It’s simple, fun, and now we have a great record of the time we’ve spent together.”
A Family Recipe
When the weather doesn’t cooperate, Barocas recommends getting in the kitchen with kids. For younger ones, she says, learning to measure and follow a recipe is a good challenge.
Teenagers might appreciate the privilege of planning and cooking a meal for the rest of the family. And they just might introduce the family to new foods of their choosing, such as a vegan meal or a dish from another place and culture.
At our house, we used FaceTime to connect with Auntie Debbie, a professional baker and cake decorator in Spencer. She taught us all her secrets for decorating cupcakes using real buttercream frosting. Now we plan to create a family cookbook by connecting with other family members to make their favorite recipes together. A chocolate mousse with the girls’ grandma in Paris is next.
At the end of the day, mealtime can open the way to appreciation of our stay-at-home vacations. Rituals like naming something each of you is grateful for will bring up moments you’ve savored on this long strange trip.