With remote learning, lockdowns and social distancing, many kids and teenagers have had significantly less interaction with their peers than ever before.
After making it through three seasons of the pandemic where kids could tackle their restlessness with long bike rides and socially distanced outdoor activities, we’re now staring down the next few months of winter dead in the eye, where one short day flows into the next.
Some kids are just over it. Done. Can we blame them? Parents and caregivers are out of ideas and running out of patience. Yet, we have no choice except to navigate these uncharted waters as kids soldier on with school (at home or in person) and we continue to work (at home or in person). So how do families get through these upcoming days?
Peer support is an integral part of childhood and adolescence. As parents and caregivers, it’s important to help children cope with not being around their friends, classmates and teammates during this time.
With no after-school play dates or recreational activities, Brendan McManus and Marcela Cabezas, both high school teachers, understand some of the challenges their kids, Nate, 11 and Kellan, 8, have experienced.
"Summer was easier because we were able to do some camping trips. Once school arrived, they went from seeing some friends socially distanced to being in a pod," McManus says. "Then we really pulled back because we were trying to be responsible. Marcela and I both see about 200 people each day — criss-crossing contact is the nature of our jobs."
As the pandemic rolls on, kids continue to find it difficult being separated from their buddies.
"Kellan was really struggling in the beginning back in March. Being separated from his friends is very hard," Cabezas says. "Both of the boys miss the ability to connect with friends on evenings and weekends."
With many of us at home and more sedentary than we’re used to, healthy movement is vital, especially for kids. And finding ways to keep them moving and engaged in the winter months is crucial.
McManus got his kids involved in home workouts in the garage. He purchased an exercise bike, trampoline, hula hoop and skipping rope.
"I shortened the seat (on the exercise bike) so it fits them and I set up a timer — three minutes on, one minute off," he says. "They’re like little sponges and whatever we do, they’ll do. I’m trying to find a way for them to not hate what they’re doing. There has to be some element of play or fun involved in everything or else it’s work."
Getting outside has become even more essential as an antidote to the lockdown. But if you’re dreading the next few months of winter, fear not. Yes, your kids can play outside in the cold and they’ll love it. The trick, of course, is convincing your kids to bundle up and leave a warm house.
Make the outdoors an adventure. Take your new pandemic puppy outside to play. Go tobogganing. Find new walking paths and explore your neighbourhood. And lace up your skates. Skating rinks are everywhere — from people’s backyards to your local community centre — making it one of the best options for people who want to enjoy the winter scenery.
When it comes to traditional winter activities, try ramping up the excitement to entice kids to go outside. Instead of sledding on a weekend afternoon, try night sledding. If you want to watch the sunset with your kids, find a special lookout in your favourite park.
If your kids bristle at cold weather, make going outside part of your daily routine. For McManus and Cabezas, walking a neighbour’s dog has become a daily family activity.
"We adopted a dog across the street. Our neighbours are building a garage so they’ve been walking their dog less. We thought ‘Hey, we could walk your dog!’" McManus says. "Every night of COVID since back in the spring, we’ve been walking our neighbour’s dog. It’s been tons of fun and one of the best parts of COVID because we go walking as a family. That piece of family time I’m not willing to give up."
Cabezas says not only are they prioritizing family time and getting exercise, they’re also experiencing their community in a different way.
"When you’re in work mode — to the school and back, to daycare and back, to scheduled activities and back — you don’t get to appreciate your neighbourhood," she says. "Now, we’ve been seeing the neat things our neighbours have been up to, like their snow forts and all of the skating rinks that people have put up. It’s a vantage point we’ve never had before."
Kids have lost activities, major events and time with friends so listen to their concerns and needs and validate them. That doesn’t mean you need to fix the way they’re feeling. Let them talk and find your own personal way to connect with them. Even though we’re together more often, how much time is spent truly being with one another in the moment?
McManus says their daily evening walks have been an opportunity to connect as a family.
"Sometimes, Marcela and I walk together and the kids walk together, or I walk with one kid and she walks with the other, and we have this one-on-one time with them," McManus says. "It’s something we’ve never had before because we were never all in slow-down mode right before bed time. Now it’s just a normal thing. I’m hoping to keep this after the world returns to whatever is normal."
Getting outside during the day also means your kids can absorb some much-needed Vitamin D, which is good for their bones and stimulates a gland that regulates mood and sleep. Outdoor activity also releases feel-good hormones — endorphins — that can help calm people and relieve anxiety. That’s especially important now since experts believe the pandemic is contributing to an increase in anxiety and depression among children.
Being outside has played a large part in keeping McManus and Cabezas’ kids engaged and active during the pandemic.
Every winter since Nate was three, McManus has built a quinzee in the front yard with his kids. This year, Nate took on the family tradition.
"As soon as the snow fell, Nate was gung-ho. Once there was enough snow, he was shovelling like a madman, pulling his brother outside for shifts," Cabezas says.
McManus says Nate was the head foreman, determining everything from how large it should be to measuring the doorway. It took about five days to make and Nate put in about eight hours of work.
Winter exploration is engrained in McManus — his dad was in the military where he taught winter warfare in Churchill. He says his dad passed down winter survival knowledge to him and his brother and taught them how to prepare for every condition.
"My dad was the officer in charge of winter exercises and if anything went wrong, it was on him. He was in charge of all safety planning," he says. "My parents were very outdoorsy people. When I was a kid, we’d go on 15-kilometre ski adventures every weekend and explore Manitoba."
McManus wants to pass the same winter wisdom down to his two sons.
"My dad always taught us what to do if we were cold, how to warm up, and basically take care of ourselves," he says. "Now that I’m a dad and responsible, I realize that it is and always was a balance between teaching them, letting them try and making sure they’re OK — giving them a chance to solve the problem on their own first."
The three of them even spent one night in the quinzee.
"Nate and Kellan loved it," McManus says. "Both of them had issues in the middle of the night but after some wriggling and rustling, they fixed them in the cold, black dark."
What’s the next adventure for the McManus kids?
"We haven’t done lean-to shelters but it’s coming. For now, we’re camping in the safety of our front yard," McManus says. "The next step is going to a winter camping spot in Sandilands and spending a night or two around a campfire and sleeping there and doing it for real. Maybe next year. It’s a totally different experience."
Even though things may not look the same, creating these experiences for kids helps to build long-lasting memories.
"My dad often tags along when I go on adventures with the boys," McManus says. "Nate told me that when he has kids, he’ll bring me along when they do fun stuff together."
This might be a winter unlike any other. But as long as we can get outside, play and give our kids an outlet, we’ll make it through and create new memories. Hopefully our kids will remember this winter for all the fun things like home skating rinks, rosy cheeks, snow forts and homemade quinzees.
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.