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Keeping the Kids Home? How to Balance Work and Play

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

A woman on a see-saw balancing work and life
Illustration by Marian Blair

Due to the novel coronavirus many schools are poised to remain closed throughout the winter, and parents are understandably struggling to reach a balance that works for themselves and their children. If you’re one of the many working parents who has opted to homeschool their children, you may feel like you have two full-time jobs—and barely enough time to accomplish even one!

How can you focus on work assignments while keeping the kids busy? It might not look like a traditional school day or day at the office, but here's how to find the right rhythm for your family.

Have a routine

Kids crave predictability and routine, especially the little one. When no one’s scrambling to catch the school bus, you may need to schedule the basics—wake-up time, meal times, and naptime if needed—to keep everyone functioning.

This also helps keep you on track as you’re planning a workday. Naptime could be your block for important work tasks, for instance (if your kid is a good napper). And a definite start and end time for your workday will help keep the work-life boundaries intact. Try to sync up the homeschool schedule with your work schedule as much as possible so everyone is "on task" at roughly the same time.

You don’t have to plan each day down to the minute, and you should leave some time for recreation and recharging. But you want to avoid a lot of "time vacuums" or long stretches where nothing’s planned at all—those lead to boredom and restlessness.

The specifics of the routine will depend on what’s best for your family, and each day might look slightly different. Older kids can help plan a schedule for the day or week ahead; they may even be able to take charge of the schedule themselves.

You don’t have to plan each day down to the minute, and you should leave some time for recreation and recharging.

Enjoy any downtime you can find

If your job offers flexibility to work whenever you want, take advantage of it! Seize the late-night or early morning hours, or any other time when the house is relatively quiet.

Downtime might also mean taking a few minutes to recharge your batteries, like a 20-minute "micronap" or a quick walk outdoors. Or use a low-key time of day, like when you’re going over homework at the kitchen table, to catch up on minor work tasks like emails.

Set boundaries

Carve out a private "home office" station, whether it’s a separate room or a chair at the kitchen table. The idea is to let the kids know that when you’re there, you’re working.

Some parents use a color-coded chart with younger school-age children. A "red light" means not to interrupt you unless there’s a genuine emergency (so you can power through that deadline or conference call). A "yellow light" or "green light" means you’re still busy but you can be interrupted. If you work in a room with a door, you can also close the door to communicate your "quiet time" work hours. Noise-canceling headsets and white noise machines can do wonders to block out sound, if you can use them safely.

Kids will take a while to remember these boundaries, so keep gently reminding them. Keeping consistent work hours will help everyone get the message eventually, and give them the comfort of knowing what to expect. Similarly, let the children set up their own workstations so they have a designated "work spot" too.

You might have to set up some boundaries with your employer as well. Be honest if you can’t commit to certain tasks or time frames because of family responsibilities. Again, letting people know what to expect ahead of time is key—if your supervisor knows you have children at home, they’ll be less startled if a "BBC dad" moment interrupts your video team meeting.

Get creative about learning

You know your kids best, so you can assess the activities that are likely to interest them and the level of supervision they’ll need. But there are many ways for kids of all ages to learn independently, even if they’re not attached to a screen.

  • Set up learning stations for younger children with a variety of age-appropriate activities—coloring, blocks, clay, etc. They can switch activities easily if they get bored.
  • Physical gross motor activity—outside or inside—is good for both body and brain development, so make it a regular part of the day.
  • Give older kids choices within activity categories; let them pick between a math activity and a science experiment, for instance. Choices give them some control and independence while keeping them on task.
  • Simple household tasks can serve as ways to reinforce academic concepts (units of measurement when cooking, plant biology when gardening or landscaping, the life cycle of water when washing dishes...the list goes on).
  • Help children generate a list (using words, pictures, or both) of things they can do when they’re bored, restless, or frustrated, then keep the list where they can see it.

Accept help

You’re not out there all alone, though you may feel that way. Keep the lines of communication open with your supervisor and co-workers, and don’t be afraid to ask if you need extra hands or more time on a project.

Don’t forget the magic of the virtual visit—even if you aren’t having in-person interactions with friends and family members, you can arrange for them to drop in via Zoom or FaceTime and hang out with the kids while you get some work done. A trusted adult could sit in on a remote art class or game session, engage in some ad hoc tutoring, or read a story aloud.

Remote education can add up to a lot of screen time for the kids, maybe more than you’d be comfortable with otherwise. Take it easy on yourself; sometimes you just need to do whatever works.

Embrace imperfection

This one’s rough for all of us, but let go of the expectation you have to work eight hours a day to be productive. You’re pulling double duty as a working and schooling parent—and if you only crossed one item off the day’s to-do list, that’s a day well spent.

Keep this in mind as you’re scheduling, both for yourself and for the kids. Daily tasks can be "tiered" to indicate high-priority, medium-priority, and low-priority goals. Don’t sweat the lower-priority items, and forgive yourself if unexpected events wreck your plans.


Parents, have you worked while homeschooling? Share your survival tips on Facebook.

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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