Balancing Work and Play Took Practice

Schooling at home hasn’t always been easy.

Changing schedules, changing school policies, changing wifi connectivity and changing moods have all contributed to daily ups and downs in the Kwan family. That has given us all a good chance to work out where our values lie, and we’ve done many experiments trying to figure out what works best for us as a family.

In February, when all this started for us in Hong Kong, the mood was fairly flippant. At that point, we thought that any quarantine would be weeks rather than months long, and my kids’ schools advised letting pupils pick and choose what work they did.

So it came as a jolt in month two, March, when we began to see Covid’s impact spreading from Asia, across the globe, and the realisation sunk in that this home learning could be for the long haul. Since then, my kids have been in physical school for a total of 11 days.

Our schedule has changed a lot, and our feelings about home learning have changed a lot too. My older daughter’s secondary school put the whole timetable online, so she’s engaged for most of what would be her normal schoolday. At first, she hated being away from her friends. Now, she’s happy she has less travel time, and meets friends one-on-one if it’s permitted, or online if it’s not.

My son, who is 8, gets set a daily amount, mostly focused on maths, English and a focus topic, and check-ins.

At our busiest, my husband is fielding meetings online, I’m interviewing, and the kids have their two besties over (our edu-bubble) to do school. On bad Internet-days, we’re often all found devices in hand, scuttling from hotspot to hotspot, and I’m left wondering if “usual” will ever return.

Here’s How Our Schedule Shaped Up

On an average day, here’s how our days look right now.

6 am

After 13 years of sleeping in until I got up, my dog gave me nudge in a new direction when she began to wake me at dawn. As a committed night owl, I hated stumbling out of bed early at first, but after some railing about this with Listening Partners, I began to appreciate the quiet house and now use that hour to get creative writing tasks started. By 7 am, when the rest of the brood begin tumbling into the living room, it feels like I’ve already “done something for me,” that gives me more positive energy.

7-8 am

During this time the kids read and eat breakfast, scan some Tiktok or play Animal Crossing, while I scan some news, and get ready to start learning. This a totally more relaxed affair than the schooldays of old where we were all rushing not to miss buses. I’m a complete housework procrastinator unless I have a routine. So I use this hour to wash dishes, load one load of laundry, and sweep the floors—luckily our apartment in Hong Kong is small—and then I count the majority of the housework “done.”

8-9 am

Both kids begin learning online. We bubble with a neighbour and usually there is just under an hour while my son and his friend are online, so I try to get a block of work done. I have to be careful that the kids don’t just move from online lessons to just online randomness, so I tend to work pretty close by.

9-10 am

Play. Once we get our eyeballs away from the screen, it’s almost always beneficial to get my son involved in some play. This is most often Special Time, where he leads what happens. Lately, he’s been choosing hide ‘n’ seek, swordplay, Nerf gun assaults, and Lego battles, and is very physical. If he’s in a good place, we’ll tackle the first bit of (so-called) “independent learning.” Last term, there was always a fair amount of tussling even getting him interested. He said he “hated my teacher voice,’ and thought the work was “stupid.” (Some of the time, I agree, heh heh). One issue that came up for me is a pressing need to Get Things Done. I jump in with way too much enthusiasm, which he finds intimidating. I also battle feelings that he is not putting effort in where he should. Over the summer we worked on expectations we had around him getting his computer, knowing his schedule, and doing some of the work independently. I’d say it’s a work in progress, but we are inching towards some of these goals.

10-11 am

Snack time. Not the first time anyone has asked for a snack, mind you, but, actual designated snack time. My son (and his friend, if she’s here) often go off and lose themselves in some play for a bit, and then start an online class. My daughter pops by the kitchen, has a chat, and then departs to her room again. Again, I try and tackle some lighter work. Emails and quick bits of writing get done, but nothing that takes too much brainpower! If I’m feeling playful, I’ll challenge myself to see what I can get done in the 25 minutes or so that I have. (if I’m not, I choose the “focus” tab on Spotify and just try and buckle down).

11-12 pm

If there’s remaining schoolwork left at this time, it’ll go one of two ways: My son racing with a sense of victory to the finish line and whipping through the task, or him trying everything he has to avoid it: “I need water,” “I need music,” which leads to “I need headphones,” and then, “Did you know x,y or z? Look, I’ll show you.”

Since this is a pretty familiar pattern, we’ve been working on deciding which bits of work are hardest and doing those first, earlier, when there’s less tiredness, boredom and resistance. But it’s taken many, many months of tears and frustration to get to that. What it does mean though, is that I’m less urgent about a final task needing to be done, and less stressed if it doesn’t, which means it’s easier now to just listen about why he doesn’t want to do it.

12-2 pm

Since the kids are in school, they have stunted lunch breaks, which is a bit of a pain, to be honest. Mostly the small kids are done by 12.30, and play for an hour, while I prep. Sometimes they help, but not often. If there’s time we’ll play some cards or dominoes, or they’ll start chasing me about. The older kids are usually ravenous by 1.30 pm when they have a designated lunch break, while the littles race to finish lunch to get to their afternoon “check-out,” with teachers. It’s good to chat and laugh with the older ones about their day as the littles go off. My son can now articulate that he finds everyone at the table at one time quite difficult, and often he’ll move to the sofa and eat with a book.

2-4 pm

We’ve experimented quite a lot with the afternoon schedule, as their school day ends. I noticed a definite dip in energy, so start my afternoon chunk of work while they start their afternoon slump, which is usually a combo of TV slobbery, crafts, reading, a cup of tea and a biscuit, drawing and looking things up. I try to leave them to their own leanings.

4-6 pm

By 4 pm, energy levels are usually picking up again, and the kids get creative. This is where my daughter will start to bake, make DIY beauty treatments, or decorate her room, and my son starts big comic projects, a fort appears, or I’ll see him creeping around on some ninja mission. Sometimes they’ll draw or play around me, but It’s also my cue to start wrapping up work.

My kids are introverts, and not big into playing outside at the best of times, let alone in Hong Kong’s humid summer with a (required) face mask, and so they could probably go for weeks without leaving the apartment without some encouragement. There’s we have an expectation that if they haven’t been out the day before they will come and walk the dog with me. Sometimes they walk, sometimes they scoot or skate, sometimes it’s like I’m a pirate forcing them to walk the gangplank, but by the time we return things are usually much lighter!

6-8 pm

We all gather, grab a dinner plate, and watch a few TV shows together. It’s taken me a lot of years getting comfortable with this—the very opposite of the strict sit at the table rule I grew up with—but when my doubts set in, I remember how carefree this feels in comparison. And yes, a bit of me likes indulging that inner rebel.

8-10 pm

We shower and do a chapter or two in bed together before lights out. I’ll read, maybe watch a show, and try, try, try to get myself to bed by 11 pm and often fail. (I guess my kids aren’t the only ones working towards new habits and goals!)

What have I learned?

It’s not just my kids who are learning. Here’s what I’ve picked up during our distance-learning journey.

I started off so casual around school and then when it seemed to get serious I started vying for an imaginary “home teacher of the year award” only to watch all my prep and efforts go to waste, while I headed in tears for the photocopier (again). Now, I’ve learned a thing or two that works for us:

  • I am rather unorganised, and so this term I have an online calendar announcing all online classes, check-ins and appointments with teachers. My son much prefers this polite A.I voice casually informing him about classes, so it’s a win-win. I do not know why I went 5 months without, but there we are!
  • I now factor in brain breaks. To begin with, I was committed to the kids’ getting tasks completed. The trouble is they were not. That meant sessions were endless. Now, we have a set amount of time to do the task (or not) and then we have a break. Guess what? Everyone is happier with the “have a go” ethic, and more is getting done.
  • Special Time or rough and tumble play after the first chunk of online learning helps the rest go easier. And it’s more fun too! I schedule it in like any lesson, except if my son comes off the call fired up and racing to do things.
  • When they are online, I focus on my stuff. I used to hover and then a lightning bolt of “what are you doing?” hit me. Now I leave it to the teacher and use that time to work (or sometimes dress, haha).

There’s been a lot of trial and experimentation. I have leaned into listening to my kids and myself more. And, ultimately, I’ve enjoyed having everyone closer together, despite the challenges. There’s talk of us coming out of lockdown and schools opening in October, but if we close again anytime, I feel like what we have built together works for us all. At least for now.

How To Get Prepared for Virtual, Hybrid, and In-Class Learning

As a thank you for donations to our fall fundraiser, you’ll receive our new video and resource series, Raising Kids Who Love to Learn. With instructor videos, guides to children’s emotions, 100 ideas for getting playful, and lots of inspiration and printables, there’s plenty to fire up your child’s love of learning and help you all overcome education challenges this year and beyond.

The series is free with all donations of $6 or more. Go here to learn more and give. 

Elle Kwan heads up Hand in Hand Parenting’s content and is the host of the Hand in Hand Podcast.




Read the other posts in this series:

Why We Worked through Emotional Baggage Before English and Math

Flexible Schedules with a Focus on Energy Supports My Child’s Learning



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