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Got kids under 5? Try these coronavirus-quarantine school resources for parents

My second day of quarantine school started elbow-deep in pink muck, my conference call on mute and Slack vibrating urgently in the pocket of my coveralls as I squatted in front of a large plastic tub on my apartment’s sliver of a balcony, mixing water, corn starch and Crayola glitter paint.

This is Oobleck, a semi-liquid substance of childhood delight. I found it on Instagram, courtesy of a popular stay-at-home-mom influencer — a sentence I never would have written before Friday, when Los Angeles Unified School District announced it would close schools to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus.

For the record:

10:16 AM, Mar. 18, 2020An earlier version of this article reported that the Brooklyn Public Library’s virtual story hour would start at 10 a.m. Pacific time. It starts at 11 a.m.

As the parent of a young child trying to survive under quarantine, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube have become my best friends. Some of my favorite artists and institutions have come through with imaginative resources for trapped-at-home families. But sorting through the grab-bag of online offerings can feel like drinking from a firehose, especially when all my son wants to do is binge Netflix.

“It’s really daunting to all of a sudden have to come up with things to engage your children with most of the day,” said Agnes Hsu of Orange County, founder of Hello, Wonderful and one of the millions of working mothers across California who woke up Monday morning to find themselves involuntarily homeschooling. “I’m not worried at all, because I’m overloaded with resources. But [most] parents don’t know where to look.”

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I felt this to the marrow of my bones. My 4-year-old started daycare when his age still was measured in weeks. Now, experts say, he and tens of millions of other school-age children could spend weeks or longer at home.

Fortunately, I spent all of high school and half of college working in preschools. (I spent the other half of college making experimental pavement for Caltrans, hence the coveralls.) Below, I’ve compiled a nonexhaustive, mostly free list of tools and activities that have helped me adjust to life as a stay-at-home working mom.

Activities to get you through the day

Hsu’s hello,Wonderful is part of a wide-ranging ecosystem of aesthete Instagram accounts and Pinterest-perfect parenting websites that have shifted into overdrive in response to school closures and the “new normal” of childcare under quarantine. Hashtags like #prekathome #kidsactivities #playbasedlearning and #homeschoolpreschool turn up quick and dirty crafts and activities tailored to COVID-19.

“My website tends to be cute and colorful, but at this time of crisis, [parents] don’t need pretty crafts from me,” Hsu said. “I’m trying to speak to parents who don’t do this all the time. They need something relatable and basic.”

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Another easy site for beginners is Recycle and Play, whose materials mostly come from the trash.

Still, even the simplest crafts require sitting, and that can be a tall order for very small children, whose days typically include hours of running around. If you’re a preschool mom in a WhatsApp group chat, you’ve probably already heard of GoNoodle, the “movement and mindfulness” video clearinghouse. You also can try Cosmic Kids Yoga, or simply perfect your Ghen Cô Vy viral video choreography.

Homeschool accounts offer other “play-based” learning activities, but as a renter in one of L.A.’s densest neighborhoods, I found a lot of their projects impractical. That said, BusyToddler gave us the most versatile weapon in our quarantine school arsenal — a 40-quart under-the-bed plastic “sensory bin,” about $10 at JoAnn Fabrics & Crafts, that has vastly expanded the kind of projects I can do in our two-bedroom apartment.

So far, we’ve managed to kill about an hour a day with “messy crafts” that would be impossible without the plastic catch-all.

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If all else fails, Hsu suggests putting kids to work.

“I’ve been giving them one big chore a day, and that usually takes two hours,” Hsu said of her three young children. “Yesterday, they organized every single Lego piece they have by color. Today they organized all of their books.”

Smaller children can wash vegetables, toys or small items of clothing — anything that makes them feel like they’re helping out.

‘Experiences’ to look forward to

Whether you’re posting your home preschool schedule in your Instagram stories or you haven’t yet found time to shower, you can enrich your quarantine classroom with virtual “experiences” from public institutions and trusted children’s creators. Many are offered live, meaning you can start to build your days around them. Others fit in when you need them most.

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A good place to start is my beloved Brooklyn Public Library, which will be livestreaming “virtual story hour” every weekday from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Pacific time.

Closer to home, the California Science Center has been building a library of experiments for kids doing “Stuck at Home Science” with free instructions in English and Spanish. If you’re a bit more ambitious, try these projects from NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. For those still finding their science-teacher sea legs, Kiddie Science is an easy, guided resource.

Kids sheltering in place still can take exotic field trips, with virtual visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the San Diego Zoo and the surface of Mars.

Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems, of Pigeon books fame, has won the hearts of my beleaguered WhatsApp group.

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And if you just need some quiet time, the Los Angeles Public Library has curated an extensive list of e-books for kids. (Locals without a library card can get a digital-only ecard here.)

Planning ahead

As my rabbi in Brooklyn used to say, der mentsh trakht un Got lakht — man plans and God laughs. But for those of us juggling deadlines and conference calls with naptime and tantrums, planning offers peace of mind. Instagram has an entire cottage industry of homeschool entrepreneurs, and many are offering yearlong, play-based curricula for toddlers and preschoolers at significant discounts through this crisis. These can be particularly helpful for pre-K and kindergarten children, who may be used to more structured classrooms, as well as for families trying to split caregiving between multiple adults.

The most popular by far is BusyToddler, which offers free resources as well as two complete preschool curricula, about $30 each with the quarantine discount. Both are “play based” — the pedagogical equivalent of a bodyweight workout — and can be done with materials you already have at home.

Blossom & Root offers more comprehensive options for young children — the kindergarten homeschool curriculum includes separate math, science and language arts units with printable worksheets and term-long projects — but it’s also more costly, and could be daunting for seat-of-the-pants parents like me.

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Whatever path parents take, Hsu said the most important thing is to manage expectations. Few working parents aspire to be educators, and none of us has ever faced a situation like this before.

“Parents don’t necessarily have the time to sit and do a lot — they also have to work from home,” she said. “What kids need right now is easy: It’s a low-cost, low-set-up type of thing to do. [Parents] need to look inside the house, and be like, here.”

From ‘Storybots’ to ‘Octonauts,’ we round up a dozen TV shows that will keep your kids occupied — without making you pull your hair out in the process.

We want to hear from you. Send us your questions and one of our reporters will answer them. Plus, send us your drawings and pictures.

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