Entertaining eight-year-old twins and a three-year old boy is a daunting challenge at the best of times. During lockdown, it all gets much harder.
Early one recent wet Sunday I had the day stretching out in front of me, and in a fit of parental wholesomeness (and desperation) I decided to get the paints out to paint Van Gogh-inspired abstract winter landscapes using potato prints.
It took me half-an-hour to fashion potato prints and cover the floor and dining table in newspaper – while they watched TV. I had high hopes that the whole morning would be filled. But, just fifteen minutes after we started there was paint on the walls and little fingers glued together, at which point they lost interest and I put on just one more short programme while I tidied up.
Overall, they had more screen than activity time and I spent an hour tidying up. It was still only 9.30am. Sound familiar?
This year, as the nation goes in and out of lockdown, parents need a bank of foolproof and low-maintenance ideas for indoor activities. If you ran out of those a few months ago, here is some good news: history teacher and first-time author Claire Balkind has come up with just that.
Great Family Days In, published this autumn, has more than 75 ideas for rainy days, school holidays and lockdowns. It’s a recipe book of games, crafts and challenges, and each one has been tried and tested by Balkind and her two little girls, five-year-old Maisie and Georgie, who is two.
Activities range from making glow-in-the-dark dreamcatchers to building the ultimate marble run. There’s a guide on indoor camping and a section detailing how to create your own village fete. For the busier kids (and less house-proud parents), I recommend ice hockey with mops or living-room sports day.
The book came about after Balkind, who teaches at a secondary school in north London, started sharing some ideas with friends on social media on how to occupy the children after the schools had shut in March.
“I was panicking about what to do with my kids as I’m a secondary schoolteacher and spend most of my time with sixth-formers. I thought I would be ill-equipped,” says Balkind, who created a Facebook page called Family Lockdown Tips & Ideas.
The enthusiastic response from other parents took her by surprise. “Over the first weekend the number of members shot up to 20,000 and I was thrown into this whirlwind,” she says.
Parents started posting mindfulness tips, videos of yoga and exercise routines to keep active while staying indoors, as well as advice about age-appropriate gaming and links to free educational activities.
It was too much for one person to oversee and so Balkind asked for help and accumulated a team of volunteers to help manage and moderate the page. Every post has to be approved before appearing and one question can generate over 1,000 responses.
“We don’t share any content that is scary, Covid-related or promotional. We also make sure we don’t inadvertently recommend anything that encourages unsafe behaviour like kids sliding down stairs,” Balkind explains.
The group now has more than 1.1 million followers and is in the top 25 Facebook pages by size across the world. Balkind – whose Instagram handle is @thewhatnowmum – has also won a Points of Light Award from the Prime Minister.
“We have really high engagement because at a time when people couldn’t be together physically they came together virtually. A supportive community formed that provided positive, practical help,” she explains. Balkind’s go-to activities include Frozen Palace Messy Play, Hubble Bubble Potions and Flashlight Aquarium.
So, do other children and their parents give Claire’s book a big tick? Two Telegraph families trial the activities and mark them out of five.