Covid-19: Ensuring children don't turn into screen zombies

Parents have to juggle working from home and managing homes with kids around

In Summary

• Many parents struggling with homeschooling amid full-time jobs being done from home. 

• Psychiatrist advises parents to regulate screentime, choose content children watch and use internet to interact with other family members and friends. 

A boy watches TV.

When the alarm goes off at 6am, everyone in Sharon Mutua’s family is expected to be awake. 

It is business unusual for Sharon and her two children who are out of school in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Instead, Mutua has made her own little school at home — her two daughters are forced to dress up in their uniforms and take the normal school routine such as lunch and tea breaks and lessons. 

"I thought by asking my children to wear school uniforms and even having a bell for the periods, will create a school-like environment for them and they will easily take the learning process seriously," Mutua said.

She narrates that in the first week, she would come back from work and find the mess the children had made.  

“I have no househelp so the oldest of the two takes care of the young one, but in my absence, they had turned into screen zombies, switching channels by the hour all day long,” Mutua told the Star on Tuesday. 

At the weekend, she spent her time drafting a timetable to help her children learn at home.  Like Mutua and with the length of school closure looking increasingly long, millions of other parents are now finding themselves juggling full-time jobs and parenting. 

Learners are now following online learning programmes. In other cases, parents have established homeschooling programmes and become teachers. 

Thousands of parents have been forced to teach their children a whole range of subjects while working from home. 

For Agatha Wamaitha, she has had to become a substitute teacher for her Standard 8 son. She credits technology for reducing her burden, saying her son video chats with his uncle who is a teacher, to revise some areas of study he may find challenging. 

"I have to lock him in his room with a bunch of test papers because I can’t put him through tuition, it’s too risky," Wamaitha said. 

Mercy Chelagat, a parent at Laiser Hill Academy in Ongata Rongai, says her plans for the week included cooking classes, outdoor play and physical education.

She says she has been participating in all the learning activities her children usually participate in when in school.

Teresia Ombongi, an Early Childhood Education lecturer at Kenyatta University, says one of the biggest concerns for children is figuring out a way to “replace interaction” that typically happens in preschool settings. 

She says parents can take turns reading books aloud for children rather than conducting structured academic lessons – as one of the ways to involve themselves in academic matters. 

She further underscored the importance of a well-rounded experience while children are out of school. 

“Are children exercising their bodies? Are they making art? Are they playing? Are they having a conversation?” Ombongi asked in an e-mail interview.  “Those are important questions to ask right along with what kind of screen time.”

Njagi Kumantha, psychiatrist and former head of the Mathare Hospital, says, "The first few days at home are important because you can set up a routine that is not centred around screens.

"This is a time to remind parents of all the wonderful ways young children can play by themselves without a screen. In fact, it’s really important that they do." 

Kumantha says it is upon parents to regulate their children's screentime and choose the content they watch. 

The most important things, he said, are that the content is age-appropriate, isn’t an all-day thing and that it has clear beginning and ending points.

“Beyond watching content, a video chat can be a great way for kids to stay in touch with friends and relatives and give kids a chance to socialise. You may even be able to enlist Grandma to hold a daily story time or switch off with other parents to host a virtual circle time,” he said. 

Edited by R.Wamochie