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Isolating with a young child for travel

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Isolating with a young child for travel

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By Chantel Leach

What do I mean by isolation?

Isolation can take on different forms depending on the venue, environment or circumstances and be either voluntary or enforced.  According to the Oxford Dictionary isolation is when a person (or place) remains alone or away from others; for some this can be as a result of a severe storm, a mental- or physical illness, and as we’ve seen from the recent pandemic, to quarantine.

No matter what your circumstances, it’s important to remember that in actual fact you are not alone (even if you’re reading this sat on the toilet hiding from your hyper toddler wishing that you were); there are people who will have had similar experiences and can empathise and share helpful resources or simply lend an ear to listen to your concerns or frustrations.  You might be asking yourself, as many have done before you, will you be able to do this and remain sane?!  That’s completely normal, and I hope to share some tips that will help you feel confident and assured that you are prepared.

Whilst writing this piece I’ve tried to keep an open mind about the circumstances and write from my own experience, which includes a 3 month lockdown in our own home, an enforced 2 week quarantine in unfamiliar accommodation in a new country, further pandemic-enforced isolation in the aforementioned country, as well as input from other experienced parents.

How is everyone feeling?

I can think of a few reasons why families would be presented with the need to isolate and none of them screams FUN to me! So the likelihood is that you may enter the isolation period with a dampened spirit and possibly a lot less energy than you (or your child) would like.

That is OK! 

Whilst you process your feelings with your lifetime of accumulated experience, spare a thought for your child’s feelings as you enter this period.  Studies have shown that infants as young as one month-old sense when a parent is depressed or angry and are affected by the parent’s mood. So your child may sense your emotions, but isn’t yet capable of rational thought and therefor has no way of processing the feelings or putting it into perspective.

Despite the fact that children won’t fully understand what is happening, they will feel the impact of change to their routine and communicate their feelings about it through their behaviour rather than their developing language.   You may not be able to change their feelings or their circumstances but it’s worth holding room for empathy for your child’s feelings even when it’s presented through undesirable behaviour.

You have the privilege of being their constant and their safe place, how can you give them the little extra comfort that they need?

I love the quote by LR Knost in which she says “You’re creating the relationship you’ll have with your teen now by how you respond to your baby’s cries, how you react to your toddler’s big feelings, how you guide your child’s challenging behaviours.  It’s in the little interactions, practiced day after day that healthy relationships are built.”

How children experience the world

Children’s brains are still developing their cognitive, analytical and language skills, therefor they won’t yet be using these as primary ways to absorb and process things around them – remember that time you asked your child to come along whilst they were engrossed by a leaf!?  Instead they constantly experience the world through their senses at a much higher intensity than adults, and have a need to move, touch, sniff, lick and mouth EVERYTHING, all in the name of brain development! 

This sensory need is craved so intensely that, if not met or balanced, is exerted through a child’s behaviour. This explains why you might find children get a little (at best described)  wild, when kept indoors or in the same place for too long, and that taking a short walk outside sets the whole world right once more.

Although this doesn’t bode well for a child that has to isolate indoors for potentially weeks, we’ll look at practical ways in which you can support this need later, but for now it’s good to be aware of it and recognise it as a GOOD thing that might be communicated to you by undesirable behaviour.  

Will isolating my child from the rest of the world for a couple of weeks impact their socialisation?

Socialising is possibly one of the most talked about topics in the toddler and pre-schooler groups, it’s no wonder that countless books have been written about this exact topic and that it’s one of the main concerns for parents facing isolation with their young children.

Research has shown that two forms of socialization, primary and secondary, are of particular importance for children as it sets the groundwork for all future socialization. These can be described as being when a child learns the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate to individuals as members of a particular culture and what the appropriate behaviour as a member of a smaller group within the larger society is.

Can I invite you to take a moment and answer; if socialising is learning values, who would you like to teach your child values; who do you want to teach your child what the appropriate actions or attitudes are?  I’m guessing that you likely want your child to have the same values and attitudes as you do.

If socialising is based on attitudes, values and actions, it’s easy to see how we don’t primarily socialise with our words let alone socialise children with our words.

Overwhelming research shows that toddlers learn by modelling the behaviour of their primary caregivers, including socialisation.

You may be familiar with the term Attachment Theory, originating from the seminal work by John Bowlby(1907-1990) in which he used the evolutionary theory of attachment that suggests children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, by producing innate social releaser behaviours such as crying and smiling, because this will help them to survive. His research suggested that the attachment that a child forms with their primary caregiver between the ages of 0-5yrs acts as a prototype for all future social relationships.  He went on to write an influential article for the WHO stating that the relationship with a child’s primary caregiver, varied in countless ways by relations with potentially another caregiver or siblings, underlie the development of a child’s future character and mental health

This research has had great effects on the institutionalised care of children and visiting access to children in hospital, and has paved the way for new thinking in psychoanalytic developmental psychology.

So yes you may not be able to pop to the shops and demonstrate how to talk to others when talking to the cashier or other customers, but you can certainly demonstrate the values you’d like to instil by the way that you interact with your child or others that may be with you.

To TV or not to TV?

Finally some information about TV and screen time for children; because let’s face it, it’s the elephant in the room – or people’s minds, when isolating or quarantining is a possibility for your family. Having the information means that no matter what you decide works for your family, that you’re able to make an informed choice about it.

The WHO recommends that children under the age of 5 spend less than an hour per day on digital devices, and those under 1 year spend no time on it.

To make sense of these guidelines it’s helpful to keep in mind the circumstances surrounding time spent on digital devices and how children’s brains develop.

The WHO’s recommendations are based on the desire to protect young children from an overly sedentary lifestyle during which minimal sensory input is experienced.  Its research has linked sedentary behaviour by youngsters as a risk factor in global mortality and identified it as a contributor to the rise in obesity.

As well screen time usually being sedentary, it also offers very little sensory input, which we’ve previously discussed as being vital for brain development and a behavioural influencer.  

This same WHO recommendation aims to promote healthy sleep habits to support young children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.

You may already be aware of the impact of blue light from screens on your body’s ability to produce the hormone called melatonin and how it disrupts our natural sleep-wake cycle.  This, together with the fact that less activity during the day may mean that we have more energy at night, can result in less sleep for a child exposed to long durations of screen time and consequentially mean less sleep for you too.

Having this information will hopefully help you decide what the tolerable balance for your family is especially during exceptional times. 

Starting isolation off on the right foot

You might be preparing for isolation as you read this, wondering what you need to pack, buy or be sent to get you through the isolation period, but in reality your child’s favourite thing is YOU!  No amount of toys, books or physical items can ever substitute you and the benefits of the time spent with you for your child, doesn’t matter what you think of your creativity or lack thereof. 

Despite the circumstances surrounding the isolation and how you may be feeling about it, you have power over your thoughts and attitude.

Before getting into too much detailed planning, take a few moments to relax and think about what is important in your life, what is it that you treasure most? 

I am certain that if you’re reading this then one of the things, potentially the most important thing, is time together as a family.

Isolation is probably not the perfect replica of how you imagine spending that time together, but it delivers time nonetheless.  During this period you have nowhere else to be, no errands to run or people to meet; is this perhaps the opportunity that you’ve been waiting for to do the things that you usually feel to rushed to do with your child?  Do you ever feel that you want to not just read them stories, but make them come to life through rein acting with yourselves , toys or puppets; do you want to share your hobbies with them but don’t have enough time to take it at their pace or to clean up afterwards; perhaps some baking, painting or sports.  How can you share your interests with your children in a way that allows them to take part within the limited space that you may have?

Yes there’ll be times that you’d like; nay; NEED a break and for your child to focus on their own for a while. Here it’s worth knowing the facts about children’s attention span and what normal looks like so that we can set realistic expectations.

A child’s brain is only able to fully focus for about two to three times their age, and yes I’m talking about that in minutes.  So a 3 year old is capable of a maximum (3×3)9min of intent focus.  We can of course help prolong their focus and help them learn to extend it, which we’ll look at a little later.

Another thing to keep in mind, as we’ve briefly touched on previously, is the fact that children are sensitive to adults’ emotions and may display behaviour as a result of having feelings with which they’ve not yet learnt how to cope.  So if you’re having a challenging day, take some time to check in with your own emotions and if needs, what can help turn it around?

What are your child’s expectations?

Young children are egocentric little beings with no sense of time and an urgency to learn that overrides all else.

You may be familiar with the classic experiment by Jean Piaget on egocentrism which involved showing children a three dimensional model of a mountain and asking them to describe what a doll that is looking at the mountain from a different angle might see. Children tend to choose a picture that represents their own view rather than the doll’s view.  Several other case studies have shown that although children may have some limited idea of the views of others, their brains only develop enough understanding of this by the age of seven to allow them to be less self-centred.    

So, as much as we’d like our children to understand what we are dealing with when we have to juggle a plate of food, cutlery, a full glass and potentially an equally full bladder whilst they ask us to hold their beloved teddy too, they just do not have the capacity to empathise.

With that in mind, this might be the time of their life!  They have their favourite thing with them, and in their mind at least, at their disposal 24/7; they have YOU all to themselves. Nowhere that you need to dash off to (other than sneaking off for that toilet break!), here with them and time, the ingredients for some serious memory making!

Practical ways to help make the most of isolation

I’d like to remind you that our job as parents isn’t to entertain our children, but rather to give them a safe, loving space to get to know them self, explore the world around them and enrich the world with their ideas.

The environment

The venue for our isolation might not be something that we can choose, but we can certainly look at ways in which we can positively adapt it.

We know that our children are multi-sensory learning beings that thrive in a sensory rich environment, so how can we peak their curiosity when their space may be limited?

What are they hearing? Are there opportunities for music, natural background noises or even chatter from the radio?

Can you add a diffuser with earthy tones or simple things such as natural wooden toys or even rotating tea bags with natural aromas can promote a sense of calm?

What stimulating sights can be added: a simple crystal or gem near a window makes wonderful rainbows, or a mirror spruces up a bland wall in seconds.

Are there opportunities to feel a variety of different materials other than plastic, such as fluffy bedding accessories or allowing them safe access to your trendy leather jacket?

There are 5 commonly known senses, but in actual fact a person experiences 8 senses.  The other 3 are perhaps not lesser known, rather lesser mentioned because as adults our bodies experience it so matter of factly ,but for young children who are just learning about their bodies these can be very impactful.  I won’t go into much detail about what they are, but if you’re interested I’d encourage you to research it further even if only with a simple google search.

The vestibular sense encompasses elements such as spatial awareness, balance and bilateral coordination.  Are there opportunities in which it can be simulated within your environment such as a rug that can be rolled as a balancing beam or can it be used as a magic carpet sweeping you to however far your imagination can stretch, or can you offer patterns on the floor with masking tape?

Proprioception is the sense of your body’s edges and sense of force, not to be confused with spatial awareness; this is rather the sense that allows you to wave a fly away from your face instead of sucker punching yourself, or gently touching your nose without looking. Pushing and pulling activities are great stimulants or games which require different levels of force like tenpin bowls or carrying heavy objects from one area to another in a race perhaps.

The last of the three is Interoception and relates to how you feel your internal body, such as when your heart is racing, feeling hungry or registering pain; it aids in self-awareness. 


This seems like an obvious point that really doesn’t need explaining, but it’s helpful to be aware of how isolation may be a trigger for more positive play experiences not just during isolation itself, but also for future. 

In the busy culture of today many children are whisked from one activity to another filling their time with predetermined tasks which leaves limited time for self-directed learning.  Research has shown several benefits of boredom including encouraging creativity and imagination by allowing them to take initiative and to explore things that bring them joy; building resilience by experimenting and potentially failing during play activities such as block stacking; developing problem solving skills, improving mental health and so much more.

Is this the opportunity to kick start different habits?

I should be clear that I don’t mean to suddenly leave children to their own devices for hours until they come up with something to do!  As with most things in life it’ll be a balance of your child’s character, what they’re used, resources that they have access to etc. 

If it’s not something that your child is used to having to do, I’d encourage you to keep in mind the earlier mentioned attention span duration as a starting point and if it’s at all possible, give them opportunities to practice before going into isolation.   

Remember that egocentric-time-oblivious child I mentioned earlier; they’ll be more happy to play on their own for that little while when you need a break for a cuppa if they’re able to choose the activity that they can engage in and it doesn’t have a prescripted goal that makes it complete.  This is referred to as child led open ended play.

Stories of play is a wealth of knowledge about open ended play and her Instagram page is filled with inspirational ideas to get you started with what things to offer or more importantly how to offer it to your children so that they feel encouraged to follow their interests.

Sometimes children need an example of how to use open ended toys as part of their play; can I invite you to unleash your imagination in those moments that you connect with your children through play and show them how much fun you have with them.

Some of our favourite open ended toys include play silks and other fabrics that offer limitless opportunities for the imagination as well as stimulating tactile senses. Building blocks in all shapes and sizes from magnetic to Lego, combined with their favourite animals or figurines make great invitations

Arts and craft resources are also a favourite in our house during free play time. 

Music and movement instruments are wonderful open ended toys. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention books, books and more books; not just for topping up on snuggles, but also picture books for children to peruse on their own.

Rhythms & rituals

At risk of sounding to contradict myself I’d encourage you to maintain any rhythms and rituals that you had in place before isolation.  By this I mean a set of responsive and flexible activities that bring predictability to children’s lives, such as a nap after lunch or family meal times together for example.  Even though isolation may be in a different place than home, maintaining rituals which have a familiar sequence of events before an activity will be comforting to your child.

For example do you have a specific set of events that happen after waking up, such as getting dressed before breakfast or a certain pattern of events that you do before bedtime or meal times?

Having control over one’s life is a basic need that we all have and a lack thereof is one of the most common causes of toddler frustration and tantrums.  By having consistent rhythms and rituals in place it allows children to know what to expect next and feel a sense of control in preparing themselves for it. 

Keeping a consistent rhythm in a limited and unfamiliar environment will no doubt have its challenges, but who said that this was going to be easy right!? 

There might be simple things that you’re able to simulate such as having family time on certain days or times might now look like video call with the grandparents instead, or outdoor time might now look like a cushion-and-sofa tumbling obstacle course or a masking tape hop-scotch diagram on the floor.

Do your kids attend a dance class that they can now do at home with some direction from you?

In closing, isolation is not the ideal situation for anybody let alone a young child, but by having an appreciation of your child’s needs and a positive attitude you’ll be able to create treasured memories from an imperfect situation. 

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