To families starting school: This year isn’t ideal, but let’s make the best of it

As an early education expert, if someone had told me 6 months ago I'd be advocating for kids to play 6 feet apart, I wouldn't have believed it.

how to model resilience during pandemic

If someone had told me 6 months ago that I'd be advocating for kids to play together 6 feet apart, I wouldn't have believed it. As an early childhood educator, the idea, out of context, makes me very uncomfortable. But time and shifting realities change things, and now, it feels imperative.

My father has helped me around many twists in life's road with his saying, "What's real isn't always what's ideal, and what's ideal is rarely real." I've never felt it more applicable or helpful than while parenting and educating during COVID-19. Things are not ideal in many, fundamental ways, and yet here we are. Though hopefully not forever, this is our reality, and probably will be for a while.

This begs big questions for parents and educators alike—do we anchor on what is ideal or on what is real as we support our kids during such a wild time? Do we hold kids precious and protect them from this reality, or do we help them to navigate within and adapt to it? Which will help them to thrive more in the long term?

My vote: Let go of "ideal" and parent for real.

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. —Abraham Maslow

Kids will roll with it if you let them

Humans—especially wee ones—are naturally quite resilient, adaptable and hopeful. Kids don't rage against reality like we adults often do—they tend to roll with things, especially if we give them the okay and support to do so.

My oldest was born with a club foot, and I was totally overwhelmed when her doctor told us 10 month old Maeve had to wear special boots locked together with a metal bar—all day long. My heart ached for my speedy crawler the first day I set her down on the floor, and it sank when another mom dropped a "so sorry!" on me at music class later that same day. This was not ideal. I called the orthopedist and implored him to find another way, but he insisted she would be fine, and that this was what she really needed.

How did Maeve react? As I was freaking out, she was moving from puzzled to frustrated to "I got this." Within a day, she figured out how to make life work with her new constraint. Today, she is literally the fastest girl in her class—the kid is born to run. Maybe even more powerfully, Maeve is persistent and confident—and I have no doubt that navigating this challenge early on contributed to that. It's wild to think of all she would have missed if I had insisted on saving her from what felt so hard on her in that moment instead of supporting what she really needed, even though it felt hard.

Kids don't suffer the loss of the ideal

Fast forward to today, and many of us are torn between the ideal and real—between taking and foregoing chances to help kids adjust to this moment. It's a hard balance to strike.

Many people are leaning into this new normal and bringing their children along, showing them how to learn new ways of doing things and make this new reality work—just like Maeve and her boots and bar. On the other hand, I have heard equally caring adults grow fiercely attached to an ideal view of life for kids.

For example, some say that it would be terrible to ask a 3-year-old to wear a mask, or for a child to see their teacher or parent wear a mask. It's true that some 3-year-olds need time to make friends with masks. But with practice, nearly every little kid I've seen takes to it just fine—and there are many ways to make mask wearing feel normal and fun for kids. I have also observed kids adjust quite quickly to the masks around them, learning to see a smile reflected in someone's eyes or to use thumbs up or down to communicate feelings. Plus, learning to wear the mask teaches kids that they can adapt.

I've also heard people say that it would be psychologically damaging to ask a child to keep social distance from a friend or loved one. For sure, it feels neither natural nor easy for kids to hold back from being close and even embracing one another or their elders. Again, as an early childhood educator, I would certainly not advise it under normal circumstances. That desire to touch is a sweet feature of our early days on the planet. It is also understandable that educators and parents alike find it easier not to ask kids to even try, especially if you live in a place where you may be judged when your child needs reminders or practice.

But is it really damaging to ask kids to learn to keep close to family while keeping a 6-foot bubble from others? Really? The alternative to asking kids to learn to keep social distance can mean isolation from friends and family, lost chances to be among other people and feel part of a community. For many families, that would also mean not seeing grandparents who are at risk. Is that a better option? And what lesson does avoiding these social encounters teach our kids?

Distancing with kids is doable

There are many ways to make 6 feet feel connected and sweet. Our family loves to give air hugs, and we practice with grandparents, with friends and even at Tinkergarten, the early education program for which I serve as director. Others have made up special waves or focused on hugging stuffed animals or pillows until we can hug the real people again.

We don't need to tell kids that getting close is "bad" or "dangerous" for them to learn to keep distance. At Tinkergarten, we talk to kids about "keeping our 6 foot bubble to "keep everyone safe," rather than use fear of the virus. The very reason we are staying away is extremely sweet—it is a loving and caring act to preserve your friend's bubble, and little kids can really get behind that idea.

Though there's a temptation to worry that kids will suffer without the chance to embrace others, remember that they can still cuddle, snuggle and squeeze their immediate family and designated "safe" people almost endlessly these days, as most of us are together all the time.

Teaching kids to "keep each other safe" is nothing new for us at Tinkergarten. Take stick play, for example. When kids play with sticks there is real danger that a child could poke himself or another child. We adults have two choices—take all of the sticks away or make some simple rules for the sticks like, "sticks need space" or "sticks can touch all kinds of things, but NOT another friend's body." Removing all danger is easier on adults for sure, but kids lose out on learning so many lessons and the joy of stick play! If you continue to gently remind kids of the rules, eventually they've got them.

Kids need reminders

Reminders are our powerful tool. Little kids do not have strong impulse control, so it will take reminding them and reminding them and reminding them. But that is exactly how little kids learn—through repetition and gentle reminders. If you can make the reminders fun, shame-free and kid-centered, it's actually enjoyable to teach and watch your kids learn to mind their space bubble. For example, we love playing like lobsters at Tinkergarten—backing up just a bit to help kids learn to keep their space bubbles in place.

Choosing social distance is a privilege

Many kids and families have already been learning and practicing social distance, especially those who do so because real is their only option. This includes children of first responders, and children whose parents or grandparents are at risk or ill, and it will include the many children who will go back to school again this fall, no matter what school looks like.

It is a privilege to advocate for what is ideal for your children—an option that not all parents have. No matter how you feel about the new normal, we can all contribute ideas and support to those who are working to help children keep safely distanced as they learn and play together. At the very least, before we buck against those efforts on principle, let's be really certain that we have both the evidence and the true need to do so.

Let's put ideal in our back pocket and parent for real

"Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don't fight them. Just find a new way to stand." —Oprah Winfrey

So much of how our kids adapt to new challenges is how we present and respond to those challenges. That has never been more true than it is now.
Let's never lose sight of what is ideal. Let's agree to look forward to days when it's easier, more natural and more free to let our kids be and play like kids have long been able to do. But, let's not let the ideal be the enemy of all of the good lessons and good chances to be together that are real in this moment.

This post originally appeared on Tinkergarten.

Founder, Tinkergarten

A very important letter for new mamas

Listen, mom-guilt is a dirty liar. Yes, it's your job to fill your little human's needs, but you matter too. Don't forget to take care of yourself. Hang out with friends, take a drive blaring 90's hip hop or shower without interruptions—trust me, you'll be a better person (and mom) because of it.

Dear new mom,

You will shave again someday. Today is not that day.

Set expectations low, my friend, and set your partner's lower—at least where body hair and overall hygiene are concerned.

That conversation could go something like this: “From now on let's not consider shaving a “standard," but more like a gift that happens on birthdays and the first day of summer."

Voila, you are a gift-giving genius. You know what else is a gift? Shaving the inch and a half of skin that is between your skinny jeans and your boots. You're welcome world.

You will not be perfect at parenting.


I have yet to meet a perfect mother, but when I do, she's going to be a tiger who is insanely good at making up songs. (Daniel Tiger's mom, we salute you.)

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14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.


Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!


Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.


Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.


Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.


Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.


Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.


Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.


Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.


Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.


Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.


Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.


Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.


Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.


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A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.

Boy was I wrong.

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