In the years since Game of Thrones popularized the warning, “Winter is coming,” I feel like I finally understand the dread those words were meant to invoke. Here in the Midwest, as we inch closer to our chilliest, grayest season, I’ll be honest: my heart feels heavy at the thought of weathering winter without friends, family, or a prolonged escape to the backyard.
Like so many of you, I live with a toddler who likes to climb, run, and explore during every waking hour. Since the lockdowns began in the spring, we’ve spent as much time as possible outside: walking the neighborhood, traipsing through the forest preserves, and splashing in our tiny water table out on the lawn. This winter promises to change all of that.
So in an effort to fight off the fear of being cooped up with an active toddler all winter long, I knew I needed a solid plan. I turned to two experts who spend their days working with toddlers and their frazzled families. Below, they helped me craft a plan to survive the wintry days ahead alongside my 2-year-old.
Find a Rhythm
Young children thrive on predictability. Go into the day with a flexible plan in place so that your toddler knows what to expect and you keep some order and sense of progression to your day. Linda Horwitz, a mental health specialist with the Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network, emphasized the importance of honoring your parenting style while designing each day.
“Think about what you like to do. If you like to be really active, then having that be your day with your toddler is great,” Horwitz said. “But if you like to slow things down, honor that as well. Be kind to yourself because there’s no perfection in parenting—especially now.”
Be kind to yourself because there’s no perfection in parenting—especially now.
She also suggested creating a visual story or graphics-based timeline for your day. That way your child can see what’s in store. She stressed that keeping kids in the loop about the goings-on of their day really helps to balance and ground them.
Emily Patillo, a developmental therapist for infants and toddlers, reminded parents that to move, explore, and act on their curiosities is hardwired into our toddlers’ bodies. “A toddler’s sensory system is developing and they may require more movement—things like running, jumping, and climbing—to get the input their brain and body need to fully participate in their world,” she said. In other words, offering plenty of time and space for activity and exploration supports our little ones as they grow and learn.
Switch It Up
When you sense the tension rising within you or your child, it’s time to reset by changing your environment. Horwitz recommended moving toys into a different room to make play feel fresh and novel. Introducing a new toy or way of playing also helps refocus little ones. Here at The Everymom, we’re big fans of rotating toys to clear out clutter and help ensure kids have toys that spark their curiosity and imagination.
There is a Scandinavian saying, “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing,” that seems fit for the times. During this moment, when we have access to only our own homes, embracing the great outdoors is critical—even when it’s cold. As long as it is safe to be outside, bundling up and taking a snowy stroll could be the break in the day both you and your toddler need.
“Even if it’s for five minutes, step outside to go on a treasure hunt or watch for big trucks,” Horwitz said. “Do something simple that makes the mundane a bit more exciting. Adults need to take a little breather—and kids need that too.”
Follow Their Lead
Toddlers are bound to wrestle with excess energy while stuck at home. Tune into their mood to get an idea of what they need. Here are some ideas to get you started.
When your toddler is feeling…
Cook up a big batch of homemade playdough for your toddler to pound out their feelings of frustration. Or using old boxes or cardboard blocks, build the tallest tower you can and let your child run through it like the Koolaid Man. You can also have them stomp their feet like an elephant (provided you don’t have downstairs neighbors), bang on a pots-and-pans drum set, or crumple up all the newspaper they can find in the recycling bin.
Try blasting some music and having a dance party to get extra energy out in a fun and structured way. If your little one enjoys bath time, Horwitz recommended filling up the tub, no matter the time of day. At our house, each of our downstairs rooms connects to the next, making a big loop for running. When it’s too cold to play outdoors, we time my oldest running laps from room-to-room. Sounds silly, but it keeps her moving when she has too much energy to sit still. Horwitz also suggested building an obstacle course from pillows to keep little ones on the move.
When my toddler is feeling curious and bored, it often results in new crayon markings on the living room walls. To keep little ones’ energy focused for good, try a DIY sensory bin. Fill up a box or plastic container with rice or sand and provide spoons, scoops, funnels, and little cars or trucks for them to explore. My 2-year-old loves to “help” in the kitchen, “washing” dishes, or loading the dishwasher for us. If you don’t mind a mess, set your little one up in front of a sink of soapy water.
When You’re All About to Lose It
I can’t think about the winter months ahead without also thinking about the myriad ways in which my toddler and I will both lose our cool day-after-day. Horwitz reminded me that when our children act up, it’s rarely a sign that they want to misbehave.
“What we know for sure is that when little kids are doing something that you perceive as bad, it’s really just a sign that there are emotions going on in the inside. They’re unable to get them out as adults would,” she said. “Honoring that kids are having some feelings in that moment is super important in having them feel safe. You want to make sure they feel OK to not feel OK.”
To Horwitz, this means helping toddlers name their emotions and reassuring them you’re there to help them through it. And if you mess up? Well, tomorrow’s a new day. And so is the day after that. Hey, we’ll be here all winter.