TRAVERSE CITY — Forty extra hours at home each week, banned from hanging out with friends and extremely limited access to activities outside the house.

It’s a recipe for turning young humans into bundles of pent-up energy — and possibly attitude — that can drive some parents up a wall.

Creativity is helpful when trying to keep kids entertained, engaged and learning in the midst of a pandemic, state-mandated school closures and stay-at-home orders — but that doesn’t mean every activity has to be complicated or costly.

“Doing anything with your kids is good; you’re doing a good job,” said Tiffany Smith, an eighth grade science teacher at Kingsley Middle School. “If that means you taught them how to make grandma’s old recipe, tell them about the math and science behind it.

“I think sometimes parents look for these extravagant things and, right now, the best thing is they’re with their kids and doing something, even if it’s a nature walk,” she said.

Tracy and Leonard Johnson use walks with their 3-year-old son, Drayven, as a chance to teach him about different colors and use mailboxes to practice numbers.

Exploring neighborhood trails is a favorite among Kate Vaughn’s family as well. She and her boyfriend, Eric Trader, have four children between them: Ean, Nick and Jenna Trader — ages 14, 11 and 9 respectively — and Simone Fazzoni, 2.

Another of the blended family’s favorite activities: Nerf wars.

Nerf wars tend to take place when Simone is napping, Vaughn explained. Once she’s asleep, the other five split into teams — Vaughn, Jenna and Eric versus Ean and Nick — turn off the lights and utilize the entire house for the game.

The home environment also can be incorporated into learning, said Adam VanHouten, a Traverse City Area Public Schools K-5 art teacher. Last week he had students make a “found object color wheel” with things laying around their houses, VanHouten said.

It’s amazing what kids will make with little or no direction when given even simple supplies like paper and crayons, he said.

“During this time, it’s gonna be really neat to see what kids make on their own,” VanHouten said.

For younger kids, it’s great to let them work with tactile materials like playdough or modeling clay, he said. It helps improve their fine motor skills.

Drayven loves playdough and gets a new homemade batch about once a week, Tracy Johnson said.

“He (Drayven) helps with making it sometimes,” Johnson said. “Depends on if he’s in the mood or if he just wants it really quick. He can’t go a day without playdough.”

Children tend to look for the, “That was cool!” factor in activities, but what they qualify as such will depend on their age, Smith said.

Preschoolers or kindergarteners might love going outside, gathering leaves, rocks and sticks to put on a poster so they can identify the specific species and a second-grader can be “wowed” with a homemade papier-mâché volcano, she said.

But an eighth-grader? They won’t be so easily impressed.

“You’re competing with computer and video games,” Smith pointed out.

There was a lot of screen time — television, phones and video games — in Vaughn’s house when schools first closed.

“Initially, we were kind of just taking it day-by-day,” she said. “Quickly, we realized that wasn’t going to work.”

There were attitudes and the kids were tired, “kind of like zombies,” Vaughn said. To help, Vaughn and Trader implemented an hour of schoolwork for Ean, Nick and Jenna and time for Simone to practice colors or numbers with some kind of activity.

How other hours of the day are spent depends on what comes out of three paper bags.

One bag has large chores for Vaughn and Trader, another small chores for the kids — someone doubles up to help Simone with hers — and then there’s the group activity bag.

“The older ones pick what’s going to be on the activity list and then (Simone) tears through whatever it is — besides the Nerf wars,” Vaughn said.

“We’re just trying to kind of take advantage of this time,” she added. “It’s a horrible thing that’s happening, but it’s kind of a blessing, the amount of time we get to spend together.”

“I think sometimes parents look for these extravagant things and, right now, the best thing is they’re with their kids and doing something, even if it’s a nature walk.” Tiffany Smith, Kingsley teacher

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