The Coronavirus (Covid-19) has forced us into our homes… isolation with kids! (arghhhhh). Everywhere I look there are ideas about how to entertain them, educate them, deal with them, stimulate them. There are a million ideas and suggestions for play circulating on social media (some of them very good ideas, some impractical or disproportionately complicated).



But what do parents really want?  And what is it that your children need?

As a parent of 4 kids ranging from 3 to 20 years, and the owner of the Owl Tree Children’s Café (a themed play café),  I suggest that what we, as parents, want more than anything is easy cheap, accessible play that requires minimal set up, as little mess as possible and with maximum playing potential.  Something that will keep them occupied for more than a minute!

And what do kids want? …. they just want to have fun – with you! For most kids, this is a unique opportunity to stay at home with one or both of their parents for more than a weekend. No nursery, no work just opportunities for fun. But they are likely to be disorientated, craving attention, missing out on social interaction, and looking to their parents to fill these voids. This is particularly true if you have just one child at home, or a very large age gap between children.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t want to play with our children, far from it. As parents. We are always looking for the best opportunities for our children, but in play there often needs to be a compromise between what the child wants and what the parent can handle!

So often it is the case that a parent plans out a carefully planned activity, with an envisioned outcome, learning goals along the way (e.g. Improve fine motor skills) and a product to show for the day’s activity. I am 100% guilty of this. It is just as often the case that your child will either be totally disinterested in your Montessori inspired activity or decide that they will play along on their own terms and change the direction completely.

So how do we play with our kids so that both parties are happy? Is it possible to stimulate, educate and have fun at the same time?

The answer in my opinion is, sometimes!

There will be days when you child is happily getting stuck into an aesthetically pleasing craft and you feel like supermum / dad but there are always going to be the days where you are contemplating a gin at 3pm.  I believe that there are a few key points that you can follow that may prevent a decent into alcoholism and maybe, just maybe might mean your child(ren) are happily entertained during “covid” and beyond.

These are:

  • Plan and theme in advance.
  • Have an objective but don’t focus on outcomes
  • Follow your child’s lead and observe, observe, observe.


Plan and theme

Right, you definitely do NOT want to go OTT on this one (or risk falling into the controlling outcomes trap), but a certain amount of pre-planning is wise. Having a background objective or theme will help both you and your child. If they are old enough, talk to them about the topic or theme, even get them to choose a theme (if they are dinosaur mad – go with that for example). By getting your child involved and thinking from the start and they will buy into it.

Themes help both parents (pre plan) and children focus. They direct any learning objectives and give an overall sense of control. Without a theme (daily or weekly), I would be aimlessly scrolling through Facebook posts looking for the next activity with no continuity. With a theme, you can search for specific opportunities to expand on what you have already learnt. A great way to do this is to use sites such as Twinkl (free resources at the moment) and Pinterest. Search using “EYFS: Early years foundation stage” or key words such as pre-school, toddler to make sure you are only looking at age appropriate activities.

Each week at the café we run a theme and when we set up, we have a range of activities. This is because each child is different, and we know that different children will gravitate to different activities. We deliberately set up play opportunities to ensure that each child (hopefully) has something they will click with. When planning initially, it is a good idea to have a range of activities planned, but as stated above, by observing your child you will soon get to realise their preferences (sensory play, role play, craft etc, and can in time focus on the things they like best!)

What themes can you use? ANYTHING! What does your child enjoy? Bugs, magical creatures, seasons, superheroes, colour, modes of transport. If you are really suck, google Early Years Foundation stage (EYFS) themes. In the café we have 50 themes that we rotate annually.

For each theme think of a loose objective (remember not to focus on this too much) and attempt to think of as many activities as possible withing this theme. For example, space:

  • Making rockets (craft)
  • Tuff tray space – using sensory items to encourage play e.g, rockets, rice, tin foil moon rocks
  • Naming the planets
  • Songs about space (Zoom zoom, zoom, twinkle twinkle little star)
  • Role play astronauts
  • Making props for space play (think space station, boxes, silver foil)

When you have several ideas jotted down, choose one to start. If you know what your child likes best ie, crafts or role play, start with that to get their imaginations engaged.

Once you have a rough plan, or set of ideas, try to put your child in control. By this I mean, ask them what they would like to start with, discuss the theme, gauge their understanding and enjoy their enthusiasm!

DON’T focus on play outcomes

Playworkers and nursery teachers are required by Ofsted to carefully plan activities and detail the expected outcomes (what we expect the child to learn from an activity i.e. Improve fine motor skills). Whilst I can see the benefits of this to ensure activities are sufficiently stimulating, I genuinely believe that this approach detracts from the main objectives of play. Albert Einstein famously said “Play is the highest form of research”; whatever your child is doing, they are learning, learning to take turns, to use their imagination, to problem solve, the list is endless. By focussing on an end objective, I think that we can often miss the process and the magical moments.

In any pre-planned activity you will have in mind an end objective; whether, it be to teach your child about the planets, create an amazing paper mache solar system (ambitious!) or make a toy space rocket. You will have a mental image of how this should work out, this is inevitable, but try not to focus on the end product or goal. In doing so the temptation to be controlling takes over and you will often find that your child looses interest very quickly, you get frustrated that all is not going to plan and all the joy is lost. Focus instead on the process. What is your child doing? Why are they doing that? Ask them (if they are old enough), copy them, observe.

Clearly if they are being simply destructive, they may need re-directing. Note when and why they lost interest.

Observe, observe, observe

DO observe what your child learns and how, you can also use this observation to note what they may need more practise with (it will help you to plan more activities). You will also notice when they are most engaged, this will also help you to plan activities that don’t require so much of your time (we call this encouraging independent play!). Certain activities will engage your child for much longer. Being aware of this means that you can adapt this type of activity to any theme you are running when you need time to write up those emails, make calls or have a shower!

By planning a little ahead, using a theme, you can direct play, initiate it, join in initially but then set up opportunities for your child(ren) to continue using their own imaginations.

How we can support you

If you follow The Owl Tree Café on Facebook, you will notice that we have regularly been posting play and craft ideas throughout lockdown.

In addition to this we have created a 12 topic booklet as an easy way for parents to plan themed play and activities at home. We have even put together a craft pack with it that contains everything you need to do over 24 crafts in the book!. For more information on this please click here.

The Owl Tree Café is dedicated to helping parents THRIVE, not survive and we do this within the context of COMMUNITY with other parents. Please do join our FB group “The Owl Tree Grown Ups” where we regularly post tips, ideas, useful information and lives from experts on a range of topics affecting families of babies and toddlers.

Please contact us for any help, advice, suggestions and share your successes and pictures, we LOVE to see them!

You can follow us on YouTube every weekday at 10am for song time and stories. 

Please do join in with our community and stay connected with other parents. I often quote the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” as I believe this to be true. Of course, practically it takes just one or both parents but it’s a whole lot easier with support. X