Nook co-founder Maria Vogelei on working from home with kids, structured playtime and getting the wiggles out

Schools are closed and there’s a whole lot of family time happening across the region right now. Here’s how to keep everyone sane and happy, per Vogelei.

nook co founder maria and her family
Nook co-founder Maria Vogelei and her family (Photo courtesy of Maria Vogelei)

It’s an interesting time to be a parent right now. Earlier this week, Gov. Northam shut down all public schools in Virginia for the remainder of the academic year, many day care centers are still shuttered for the time being and families are finding a new balance of working from home and caring for the kids—all at the same time.

But finding that balance really is possible. We spoke with Maria Vogelei, the co-founder of Nook, a family brand that creates intentional play spaces for children (the brand has locations in Ballston Quarter, Mosaic District and Bethesda, although they are all currently closed due to the coronavirus), about beating your family’s cabin fever, keeping the kids entertained and maintaining your own sanity. Vogelei is also a mother of three, including two girls (ages 5 and 4) and a 1-year-old boy. See highlights from our conversation below.

This is a hard time for parents trying to take care of their kids and work from home at the same time. What is your biggest tip to keep the home structured?

Kids, no matter what age, thrive on routine because it gives them a sense of control. I would suggest creating a routine out of this new normal that we’re all living in. Discuss the routine with your kids so they know what they can expect. And note the difference between schedules and routines. Schedules with strict start and stop times will just cause more stress. Routines provide a loose structure to the day and allows for the occasional meltdownfrom either parent or kid.

Is it better for playtime to be structured right now, or do you suggest giving children more room to free play?

Younger kids still need guidance in play. For them, I would create invitations to play—set up a sensory table or a Play-Doh or Duplo station, then guide them in play for the first few minutes. From there they can play freely. So, it’s free play within structure.

Instead of sitting kids in front of the TV or their tablets, what’s a great self-play game, toy or method that parents can use to “distract” their child as they get some work done?

Open-ended toys are great for independent play: Legos, blocks, Play-Doh, dress-up dolls, anything with loose parts that can be manipulated in play. We also need to remember to fill their “emotional cups” before we can expect them to play on their own. When you give them a few minutes of your undivided attention, they’ll be more inclined to play on their own and less likely to keep returning back to you.

Cabin fever is ramping up for all ages. How can parents help to combat those feelings with their kids to get the wiggles out?

Always make time to get outside for fresh air. Even when it’s cold or raining, 15 minutes of fresh air goes a long way.

What is your favorite toy or activity that is also educational for kids?

Legos are great for all ages. Sensory bins are also wonderful, especially for babies and toddlers. Find a bin and fill it with beans or uncooked pasta, or even just water, and throw in some cups. It’s guaranteed at least 20 minutes of play.

Do you have any other tips for parents right now during this unprecedented time?

Do what you can to prioritize yourself. Kids pick up and reflect your mood and energy, so it’s important to take time to take care of yourself. Do what works for you. If that’s three hours of screen time, do it and try again tomorrow. There’s no right way to do this. We’re all just figuring it out. We’re all wondering what we’re going to do with our kids’ abundance of energy when we’re confined to our homes. Don’t underestimate the power of creative, imaginative, developmental play. It engages all of a child’s senses and really tires them out. We see that a lot at Nook and love when we hear parents say, “We usually get a two- to three-hour nap after we leave.” Yes, they’ll probably need to run up and down the block a couple of times once in a while, but if you provide enough invitations for learning through play at home, you’ll find that naptime/quiet time will come easily. 

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