The last twelve months have been traumatic for everyone. As adults we are able to explain feelings of loneliness and isolation, and pick up the phone to communicate with other people who understand. I’m pausing now to reflect on how it’s been with a toddler. The terrible two’s are a real thing, and during this time they learn new things at an exponential rate. The impact that twelve months of limited interaction will have on young children I fear is something which remains to be seen. Although I find it remarkable how resilient Arlo has been throughout at adapting to change. It’s been exhausting trying to keep up with him.
Arlo was two when lockdown first began, and we celebrated his third birthday when the first lockdown drew to a close in June. During the second lockdown I had to complete his primary school application without visiting any of the local schools and I can’t help but pause to reflect on the last twelve months. As an adult it feels like the last twelve months has dragged but for Arlo it’s been a quarter of his life. He probably won’t remember much from before 2020 and so this pandemic has formed the beginning of his living memory.
As soon as the clock struck midnight and I found myself sitting in 2021 a sudden panic set in. This is the year that Arlo starts school and I don’t know how ready we are. This time around, in third lockdown we have been fortunate enough to still be able to send Arlo to pre-school and it’s now after a couple of months of being settled in to a regular routine that I’ve realised just how important that social interaction is for him, and how lockdown and the pandemic had an impact on his behaviour.
Life before lockdown
Arlo has always been a very energetic child. As a full time working parent he was well settled in to nursery during the week and I used to pack a bag and head out every weekend on adventures because his energy levels know no bounds. He’s a bright and inquisitive child but his attention span is about 15 minutes so as soon as you have set up a train track he is asking “what’s next” and pulling out the Lego from the toy cupboard. We used to visit children’s farms, and kids theatre productions. We would go to theme parks and for swimming lessons, and everything in between. The transition to working from home with nursery closures was not easy – in fact it was nigh on impossible. You can’t attend a zoom call with a toddler singing baby shark at the top of his voice. We also didn’t have any trips to look forward to at the weekend. Even our holiday was cancelled.
Between his father and myself we managed to strike up a new routine last year to cope. Most days Arlo would head out for his daily exercise with his dad so that I could get my work done. I would pack some tasks and set them challenges to keep him occupied and stimulated. Fresh air and the great outdoors was invaluable. Nature gave us so many opportunities and themes to explore and so we worked with this.
I found myself networking with other like minded mums and sharing successful ideas. The internet became my most valuable resource and I contributed as much as I could back to the play communities. Everyone’s aware of the toilet roll and pasta shortages but parents will also be able to tell you that paint and PVA glue also became impossible to get hold of as parents up and down the country ordered in bulk to keep the little ones busy. Creative ideas for play based activities started to appear everywhere I looked, with lockdown Facebook groups and Instagram pages firing up.
We coped here by trying to pick a lose theme or topic and focus all of our activities on this until it was exhausted. During our “birds” theme for example we made cookies in bird shapes, painted a bird house, made bird feeders for the garden and then also went bird watching with binoculars and a guide book – not all in one day I might add. I incorporated screen time in to our routine despite being one of those parents who had previously been adamant that an iPad wasn’t going to be an option. David Attenborough documentaries along with some educational apps really worked wonders. Arlo can tell you confidently the differences between a Macaw and a puffin, a magpie and a Robin etc.
We found a Swans nest on one walk and went back every week to finally find that the eggs had hatched and there were cygnets to count, and at home one evening we settled down to watch swan lake together. As theatres remained closed I found that many performing arts shows were available online and this gave us access to new worlds. Just like many others I planned ahead to Christmas and booked tickets for pantomimes and performances, music concerts and discos, never mind all the little clubs and groups we attend. Everything was cancelled. All the things designed accessible to toddlers and designed to give them a broader sense of cultural enrichment. I think I do an alright job of being a mum, but they say it takes a community and this is so true.
We did really struggle with the lack of human interaction – Arlo has always been very sociable, every walk we went on he would pause to greet passers by, in fact we couldn’t walk past a dog, duck or ant without a five minute pause – so he couldn’t understand why people would stand to the side of a grass verge and not pause to say hello, some people wouldn’t even raise their heads to make eye contact. The masks also frightened him at first too. I can totally understand that people are concerned about social distancing and don’t want to be near others, never mind a grubby a three year old with muddy knees, but how do your explain that to a child when all they know is that they’re supposed to say hello and please and thank you because you’ve been trying to teach them good manners?
We had a tough experience when we walked through our local park and approached the play area which was closed. Our local park is full of steep hills and to incentivise Arlo to walk there was always the promise of the swings and the slide, and we would quite often arrange to meet some of his friends – so when we arrived to see the forlorn looking park with tape, padlocks and signs there were tears and tantrums. I had to carry Arlo home like a surfboard (we’ve all done this at one stage) it was just impossible to explain that he couldn’t go in to the park, and from this point on I decided to try and avoid this area at all costs. I also tried to get online to order a slide for the back garden but they were sold out too.
My tactic from here on in was to avoid the more popular parks in our local area and head off the beaten track to places where we were less likely to encounter anyone. I found an old A-Z (the book equivalent to google maps for anyone young enough to not know) and marked out all the local bridle paths and public rights of way. I didn’t realise myself just how many hidden treasures are on our doorstep. This gave us some new places to explore and every walk became an adventure. One thing we had plenty of was time. We could pause to watch a trail of ants for half an hour and I began to take out tote bags so that we could collect all the interesting pebbles and leaves. With no one around and no cause for embarrassment we would sing out loud as we marched along muddy paths.
On our walks we alternated between taking the bike and the scooter, Arlo started with his balance bike during lockdown and managed to conquer some steep down hills with no fear. By the end of summer he was upgraded to a pedal bike. We also managed to turn a corner with potty training too. Having the constant interaction and support from us as parents helped him in these respects.
We found a pond with tadpoles five minutes walk from home and visited regularly over the course of a few weeks to monitor their growth and lifecycle. We would catch some gently in a net to inspect but release them back rather than bring them home (much to Arlo’s dismay) but we taught him valuable lessons in respecting animals and being kind and gentle towards them. Due to his interest in this I did manage to order some caterpillars online and we watched them grow for a few weeks at home. I managed to link quite a few arts and crafts projects to the “very hungry caterpillar” book which went down a treat. We eventually released these on the VE Day bank holiday in to a glorious blossom tree, Arlo handled them delicately and was delighted to see them fly but the goodbye was tinged with sadness as he had grown so fond of them.
I did really worry that Arlo was missing out on social interaction, especially with children his own age and so we tried our best to think of ways to remain connected. Video calls with his cousins were a highlight, and with every project we tried out at home I would encourage Arlo to make something for his friends. He can’t write a letter but he can draw pictures and send gifts so we would pop to the letter box on our walks and then wait patiently for the postman to bring our replies. Before lockdown I can’t remember receiving anything other than bills through the post, letter writing had been replaced by emails and tech but we bought it back.
We would also make batches of cookies and cakes for his cousins regularly. Arlo has become somewhat of a pro in the kitchen now. He likes to count and weigh ingredients and is very experimental when it comes to flavours and food colouring. Before lockdown we used to bake maybe once a week, but now Arlo gets involved at every meal. We had decided to focus on making the most of the time we had – not to worry too much about learning and education – sitting down and trying to get him to write his name for half an hour or recite the alphabet wasn’t worth the stress, but this kid knows how to crack an egg without dropping any shell in to the mix.
Arlo has always loved his food and this remained a great pleasure during lockdown. With not much else to do at home and and trying to keep him occupied we would eat alfresco as often as possible – quite literally we would take the entire dining table outside and he would help carry the, chairs, table cloth and cutlery out to the garden and lay the table. We sat together every evening talking, listening to music and enjoying our garden.
Right at the beginning of lockdown we started our garden project and the effort we put in to this really did pay off. Back in March we planted seeds for all sorts, sunflowers, runner beans, flowers, salad leaves and herbs. Twice a day it was Arlo’s job to head around the garden with his watering can, (helped by grandad) and this would take ages. Every day there was something new to find. From different coloured flowers to the scent of fresh mint. When it was time to harvest our runner beans Arlo spent a whole afternoon popping them from the shells.
We built a bug house outdoors and checked every day for spiders, and would also collect all of the snails around the garden too. Arlo has always had a real affinity for animals, and we missed our trips to the zoos and aquariums. One of my friends suggested “sea monkeys” after our caterpillar project and again we turned to online shopping to order a little kit, setting it up and watching them grow. Arlo would climb up to the tank and sit every day with a magnifying glass watching them flip and twirl. We head to the local pet shop weekly to pick up supplies for our cats, and this became the highlight of Arlo’s week as he could see the fish, and rodents on display. One of the only times he would get to go out of the house, and so he would talk about it constantly.
Eventually I ended up getting him a mouse. In the pet shop one afternoon in September I told him we could take one home. He inspected every single mouse in the building and an assistant kindly helped him decide – introducing him to every single creature. I think she knew just how much this meant to us. AHe chose a funny little black and white thing and at first he wanted to name it after a boy in his nursery class. I steered him away from this and he proclaimed loudly in the shop that the mouses name was Bingo before treating us to a very loud rendition of “bingo was his name O.”
Bingo quickly became part of our routine. Replacing his food and water daily and taking the time to handle him with care. Then cleaning him out weekly too. Arlo has learnt to take responsibility and in turn has been rewarded with a pet mouse who has become tame and responds to him. I proudly watched on the first time Arlo showed me a new trick – he places Bingo on one palm and then stretches out his arms so that the mouse runs up and across the back of his neck and down to the other palm where he holds a treat. He told me Bingo is his best friend.
I can look back at everything we’ve done with fondness but it wasn’t easy. As soon as the clock struck midnight and I found myself sitting in 2021 a sudden panic set in. This is the year that Arlo starts school and I don’t know how ready we are. This time around, in the third lockdown we have been fortunate enough to be able to send Arlo to pre-school and it’s now after a couple of months of being settled in to a regular routine that I’ve realised just how important that social interaction is for him, and how lockdown and the pandemic had an impact on his behaviour.
Routine went out of the window and so bedtimes were a battle, but just now he seems to be tired at a decent hour most weeknights and settling back down nicely. He comes out from nursery every afternoon talking about his friends and telling me about new things. He talks a lot more in fact, using phrases and words which I’ve never heard him mention. Singing new songs and then telling me all about his day because he has had new experiences. We get regular communication from the staff and they share pictures. At nursery Arlo sits down and concentrates on writing his own name, he will build cars with construction toys and will read stories to the other children. He also tells everyone about his pet mouse and wants to take him in to nursery to meet his other best friend.
I can’t help but sit back sometimes bewildered at just how quickly children grow and change. He’s taken this last year in his stride, it’s certainly had its ups and it’s downs but I know we will never get another chance to spend so much time together as a family again. We made the most of every chance we could to get out and about and all of the local businesses, such as children’s farms made a real effort when they were able to open their doors again. At one point last year I cried thinking that Arlo wouldn’t get to see Santa, the first year he understood the concept, but we managed to squeeze in a socially distanced visit. Arlo didn’t even notice, or rather he didn’t acknowledge his visor as now he is accustomed to this – the new normal. I’ve learnt to value the little things and see the world through the eyes of a toddler where new things are remarkable and every little thing matters.