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5 Ways to Play When Your Child is Home Sick

If there is one thing I’ve learned this winter as “Mama” to my 15-month-old son, it’s this: part-time daycare does not equal part-time germs.

Last winter, I was home on maternity leave. Together, Henry and I embarked on one “adventure” per day, regardless of the frigid temperature or lack-of-sleep status from the night before. I looked forward to interacting with other adults, even if I was simply placing an order at Starbucks. We were regulars at the free newborn gym class in our neighborhood; I patted myself on the back for exposing Henry to different people and germs. As a social, breastfed baby, I assumed it would be years before Henry developed his first fever… 

Fast forward to this winter. I’ve missed more work than ever before, due to the many days Henry wasn’t well enough to attend his part-time daycare. I’m grateful that Henry has the opportunity to socialize with friends and teachers 3 days per a week. However, I could do without the germs that come along with this experience. (We also visit the Children’s Museum of Manhattan regularly, so I guess daycare shouldn’t get all the blame!) 

As an early childhood educator, I’m a strong advocate for keeping children home until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours. However, as a mom, this means I’ve spent many days at home with my own child. He may wake up without a fever and act like his goofy, lovey self, but if he had a fever the day before, I’m keeping him home. 

If you feel like your family has had your fair share of fevers, sniffles, coughs (or worse) this season, this post is for you. My goal is to view every “sick day” as a unique opportunity to engage and bond with my son. Instead of simply getting through the day(s), let’s have some fun!

Here are 5 ways to play when your child is home sick:

Get creative 

For Christmas, my mom put together an incredible box of toddler-friendly art supplies for Henry. (Thankfully, she included two long sleeved smocks!) Since it takes time to prep for a mess, we don’t dive into this art box on a daily basis. Clean-up can also be a time-consuming task.

When Henry’s home sick, we have the luxury of time on our side! At 15-months-old, he’s all about the paint. I offer him a variety of brushes and items to paint and print with: sponge shapes, cardboard tubes, empty oatmeal canisters - basically whatever I find in the recycling bin that day! I plan to update Henry’s art box regularly to ensure that the materials are age appropriate and ready-to-use. I may even keep a fresh set of triangle crayons or interesting paintbrushes tucked away until our next sick day. For older children, a couple new sheets of stickers may do the trick.

Since you’re spending the entire day at home, challenge your child to take her time with whatever project she’s chosen. “I see that you’re filling your entire paper with finger paint.” “I wonder if we can string enough beads to go from one side of the kitchen table to the other.” “I notice that you drew four people in our family. Who would you like to draw next?”

Take the creative process one step further by asking your child if he would like to share his artwork with a friend or family member. Gathering the supplies needed to mail an envelope can be a fun distraction when a child isn’t feeling well. Your child might also enjoy helping you photograph his artwork for a text or e-mail message. If you know someone that’s available for a FaceTime call, your child could even share his or her art work immediately.    

Get cooking

Henry is fascinated by kitchen gadgets. Crankiness instantly disappears the moment he spots our salad spinner! Depending on what kind of illness is keeping your child home, he or she may not have much of an appetite. However, I find that Henry enjoys tasting ingredients as we cook, even when he’s not feeling his best. Sometimes the process of preparing a snack or meal is comforting in itself, even if your child isn’t interested in eating the final product. 

If it’s difficult for Henry to reach whatever gadget or appliance we’re using, I bring it down to the floor. We often sit on the kitchen floor together, surrounded by appliances, bowls, and ingredients. Here are a few gadget-driven kitchen experiences that may cheer your child up:

  • Roasted chickpeas (Use a salad spinner to rinse and dry the canned chickpeas before roasting.)
  • Fruity cream cheese (Use a hand mixer to combine ingredients.)
  • Smoothies (Blend a yummy combination of fruit/yogurt/milk. Non-dairy items are perfect here, too!)
  • Cookies (Use a hand-mixer, even if it’s not necessary.)
  • Muffins (Blender muffins have taken over the internet. Henry loves the green spinach muffins we make together.)
  • Creamy soups (Use an immersion blender, even if your soup isn’t typically prepared this way.)
  • Homemade pasta (This is an ambitious project that requires patience and a pasta machine, but you have a whole day at home, right?)
  • Veggie sushi (This is easiest if you have a few basic, sushi-making supplies. I also have nori sheets and sushi rice in the pantry, just in case we’re in the mood to roll!)

Get cozy 

When I was a kid, the couch was my favorite place whenever I was feeling under the weather. Most children love choosing a special movie to watch with a parent. Try suggesting a few classic titles that you enjoyed as a kid when you were home sick. Young children love hearing stories about when their parents were their age… mostly because it’s so hard for them to imagine! 

Henry hasn’t been exposed to screen time yet, so we get cozy on the couch with books. First, we go on a “book hunt” to gather a few of his favorite books from every room. I sing (to the tune of Peter Pan’s “Following the Leader”), “We’re going on a book hunt, book hunt, book hunt. We’re going on a book hunt, to find some books to read!” He helps me push a box or basket filled with books into the living room. We snuggle up with our giant stack of books, his panda bear lovey, and a cozy blanket. This is also the perfect opportunity to keep your child hydrated, so keep water nearby.

Additional ideas: use couch cushions and blankets to create forts, tunnels, or caves. If you have a play tent or small camping tent, consider using it as a cozy hideaway while your child is home sick. It’s comforting to read, snuggle, and snack in a small, comfy space.  

Get productive 

As a preschool teacher, I’m always pleasantly surprised by my young students’ enthusiasm for “jobs”. Three-year-olds are incredibly proud to water plants or wash tables after snack time. There is something empowering about completing a multi-step task without a teacher’s or parent’s help. My own 15-month-old son immediately smiles and nods his head whenever I ask, “Do you want to help Mama?”

Although it’s certainly quicker to complete chores on my own, I try to include him on a regular basis. When Henry is home sick, I feel like we can take our time and enjoy being productive together. Here are a few fun ways for your child to help out around the house:

  • Sorting laundry into piles of “light colors” and “dark colors”
  • Washing and/or drying dishes by hand
  • Dusting furniture
  • Working with a dustpan and brush
  • Organizing toys or books (“Can you find any toys that you’d like to share with babies/younger kids/kids who don’t have many toys?”) 

Get outside

My final tip is dependent on your location, the weather, and how sick your little one is feeling. In my experience, spending just a few minutes outside can serve as a reset for the entire family. If Henry is home with something contagious, I keep him bundled up in his stroller and take a quick walk through the park or run an errand. I keep him engaged by pointing out the animals, cars, and trucks that we spot along the way.

For older children, you could make a quick tally sheet or bingo card to make the brief outing feel special. Involve them in the process by asking them to predict what they expect to see during your walk. Use stickers or a washable marker to check off each item that you see.

If your child is very sick, sitting by the window or spending a few minutes in your backyard may feel like enough of an outing.  

I hope these 5 tips help your family survive (and even enjoy) the season of sniffles. When all else fails, work together to create a giant countdown poster to spring! 

About the Author
Lauren Vien taught in private Manhattan preschools for over a decade before joining the Rose & Rex team as Education Director. With a masters in Early Childhood Education and Special Education from NYU, Lauren is deeply passionate about positive language and developmental play. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and two young children, Henry and Violet. Family pastimes include building with couch cushions, preparing plant-based meals, and scooting to neighborhood playgrounds.
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