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Update: Many park districts have closed playgrounds and other areas where groups may gather. Please check the official websites for each before venturing out.
By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
So it’s official: pandemic pandemonium has set in, with the closing of schools, the cancellation of major events, and the clearing of supermarket shelves as people hoard supplies. As concerns over coronavirus spread, everyday life is getting increasingly disrupted. While staying healthy and minimizing the spread of the virus is the top priority and the reason for the closures, keeping kids constructively occupied is important, too.
With so many kids home now all day (and many parents having to work during that time, even if it’s remotely) and weekend events cancelled, how will you keep them busy until life gets back to normal? Below we’ve compiled some great ways to keep kids engaged, educated, and entertained. Because nobody wants to resort to “babysitting through electronics,” our list includes many options for outdoor activities, too.
- Visit a local park: go often… you have nearly 800 to choose from!
- Play outside: enjoy games, nature walks, and more
- Go “bird” watching: watch airplanes come and go!
- Learn something: make science experiments, crafts, and more
- Tour a museum: enjoy free virtual tours
- Go wild: view wildlife live cams
- Read together: start a family book club
- Have a movie night: find age-appropriate movies and shows
- Get fit: do fun workouts as a family
- Show gratitude: write letters and cards, make fun gifts, and donate
- Fix something: do home repairs
- Pamper yourself: create a home spa
1. Visit a local park
This one is obvious, of course. We all know you can visit parks at any time, and in Northern Virginia we luckily have a great county, regional, state, and national parks. Fairfax County Park Authority, NOVA Parks, Virginia State Parks, and our local national parks such as Great Falls Park and Manassas National Battlefield offer great walking, hiking, and biking trails. Don’t forget the municipalities such as the Town of Vienna, City of Manassas, Manassas Park, City of Alexandria, City of Fairfax, Town of Clifton, and City of Falls Church, which also have their own park systems, as do neighboring counties Prince William, Arlington, and Loudoun.
Many of these park systems are shutting down activities (such as events and guided tours) because of coronavirus worries, but you can still visit. Most parks, if not all, still will be open for walks, trail hikes, and just enjoyment of the grounds.
As if the 427 Fairfax County parks or more than 300 others in neighboring areas were not enough, you have other ways to get outside and explore the area. Check out multiple sites and explore local history as you go on the Northern Virginia Civil War Trail (you can get the map online). Or take in lovely views with an easy stroll along the Neabsco Creek Boardwalk in Woodbridge that opened just in 2019 or the Mount Vernon Trail that goes from Mount Vernon to Roosevelt Island.
2. Play outside
You don’t need to go anywhere to get outside, of course… your backyard will do! From hide-and-seek to climbing trees, encourage your kids to make a game out of good old-fashioned fun. Have them play games such as soccer, where use of your hands is extremely limited. If you have a playground set, provide them with hand sanitizer and wipes (if you were able to get them before people wiped out the stores of supplies!) to keep themselves and the equipment clean, as coronavirus can linger on surfaces.
One easy way to encourage your kids to get out and play? Join them! When was the last time you kicked a ball around with your kids, went on a hike together, went on a bike ride, had a Nerf or water balloon battle with them, or did a nature walk around the neighborhood?
3. Go ‘bird’ watching
The number of flights in and out of airports has gone down as many people cancel their travel plans. Still, Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) and Washington Dulles International Airport remain busy hubs that Northern Virginians can access easily. You may not want to board a flight yourself, but it can be fun to have a picnic and go “bird” watching to see the airplanes come and go.
A great place to watch the inbound and outbound flights for DCA is Gravelly Point Park along the George Washington Parkway. For IAD, park yourself along the hilly lawn (facing Route 28) on the grounds of Sully Historic Site.
4. Learn a thing or two
There is so much you can do that is fun and educational right in your own home! The Scholastic site offers many ideas, grouped by grade level. Education.com lists ideas for elementary-school-aged kids, and you can search by grade level, subject matter, or topic. The Maker Mom offers many ideas as well, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Kara Carrero site offers dozens of activities, many of them educational, for kids of all ages. Other useful sites include PBS and Jumpstart.
And remember that even simple game-playing has educational benefits, too. I love that even though my preteen son has grown up in the digital age and loves electronics, he is equally delighted with board games. By playing cards, Monopoly, Life, Battleship, and other games (ironically enough, a few years ago we bought a good one called Pandemic!), kids can learn about strategy.
5. Tour a museum right from home
Luckily for Northern Virginians, we are very close to the great, free museums of the Smithsonian Institution, among others. Unluckily for us (and everyone else), those are closing temporarily effective March 14. But you can still get a museum experience by touring some other facilities online! Travel & Leisure magazine recently posted a list of 12 museums from around the world that you can tour virtually. From Britain to Brazil, you can “visit” these famous museums and see their art and artifacts.
6. Immerse yourself in wildlife
Want to join animals in the wild? Spend some time watching animal cams! Outside magazine has the “definitive ranking of livestream wildlife cams.” Get up close to polar bears, sharks, penguins and more through your computer for free and educational “entertainment.”
7. Start a family book club
Here’s something that is good to do any time of the year: start a family book club! This is a great way to learn together as a family, encourage critical thinking (no matter the reading level or subject), practice good conversational skills, and even discover something about each other. You can even involve family members or friends in other geographic areas by calling them or having them join you via Skype, FaceTime, or other teleconferencing tools. The Scholastic site has good tips on how to start a family book club.
8. Catch up on movies and shows
Have a movie night — or day! With regular networks, cable television, and streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Disney, and more, families these days have an almost limitless number of options. This is a good time to catch up on movies you missed at the theatre, share favorite flicks from your childhood with your children, discover a foreign film, or enjoy an independent movie that went under the radar. To help you choose the most age-appropriate movies and television shows (as well as books, apps, and games), check out Common Sense Media, which provides great details. Kids in Mind is another site that provides similar guidance.
9. Enjoy family fitness
Spend quality time together, have fun, and get fit by exercising as a family. If you have a Wii Fit or something similar, now is a good time to put it to use. But you don’t even need any special equipment to work out indoors! Make up your own routines, silly dances, or challenges, letting every family member have a say or lead an activity. For something more structured, teach kids some basic yoga poses or how to do weight lifting and strength training with household items.
10. Show gratitude
Life is better when you live it with “an attitude of gratitude” and one way to do that is to expressly say thanks. Use this extra time together to do so to each other within your family or to other relatives and friends. Letter-writing is becoming a lost art, and with email being the primary form of communication these days, to receive a good old-fashioned letter or thank-you card in the regular mail is a delightful surprise.
This is also a fine way to let your kids’ creativity shine through their words and pictures. And it’s also a great time to make good use of your craft supplies (which, if you’re like me, you have in abundance!). As you write your letters and thank-you cards, think of all those people you appreciate but to whom you may not often show your gratitude. Grandma and Grandpa, teachers, your mail carrier, your favorite clerk at the market, your landscaper… make a list and you may be surprised at how long it gets!
Beyond thank-you cards and letters, you can do simple things that will be a nice surprise. Maybe take treats to the local firehouse or bake cookies for a neighbor. Go shopping for pet supplies and drop them off at an animal shelter. Buy supplies at a dollar store to make “just because” fun gifts for friends and neighbors… you’d be surprised at what fancy, practical things you can make! And think long-term and help save lives by donating blood: the Red Cross notes volunteers who do so can help avoid a shortage.
11. Fix something
No person is perfect, is neither is any home. The chances are good that there is something in your home that needs fixing. This would be a great time to do so, especially if you have older kids that can help! Lowe’s Kids’ Workshops are cancelled for the foreseeable future, as are some at Home Depot, but you can create your own projects at home. If your projects are too big or dangerous for kids to play with, there are still good “fixes” they can help with, such as doing spring cleaning or organizing a room. Active toddlers who want to “help” can do so with their own toy tools.
12. Pamper yourself
Treat yourself to some rest and relaxation with a “home spa.” Teach your kids self-care through yoga, meditation, massage, and beauty pampering. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on products or tools. A quick trip to the local drugstore to get massage rollers, aromatherapy oils, facial masks, foot scrubs, and similar items is enough. But if you want to splurge, you can buy some nice pampering kits online. And remember this is not just for girls! More men are discovering the benefits of a pedicure, so let the guys in your clan get their tootsies treated, too!
How will you be spending this “hunkered down” time during the coronavirus crisis? Share your thoughts or any other ideas in the comments below!