When J. I. Packer was a child, his head was smashed in a traffic accident. Because of this injury, his parents did not get him a bicycle for his eleventh birthday, even though he wanted one.
Instead, he got a typewriter. J. I. Packer would go on to publish so many books and papers that a complete bibliography is impossible.
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”*
I’ve thought often of this anecdote because of my own family’s limitations. The rest of the world is now practicing what we, in large part, have been practicing for about seven years: social distancing. A profound genetic condition has caused such low muscle tone in my younger child that he does not cough like he ought. We go through round-the-clock breathing treatments, suctioning, supplemental oxygen, and usually pneumonia - for the common cold.
So we don’t do holidays with young cousins. Our older child doesn’t go to birthday parties or children’s ministry classes during cold and flu season. Small get-togethers are often cancelled because someone has a cough.
Recreation as a family is not easy, either, for a number of reasons I won’t list for fear of sounding grumpy. We parents can easily occupy ourselves, but what can we do that’s inclusive of both our kids and something they’d enjoy?
We’ve failed at figuring this out more often than I’d wish. But, in the spirit of not letting what we can’t do interfere with what we can, we have found some things that have worked well for our small family.
Chances are, if your life has changed because of the national precautions being taken, you are already falling into a unique rhythm of life that fits you. There are many normal things that won't happen these next few weeks. But I look forward to hearing, when all is said and done, about the other things that happened instead.
For what it's worth, here are some activities that have been mainstays over the years for our semi-isolated family.
Last year our ten-year-old suddenly started to enjoy table games. (Suppose it has anything to do with the fact she suddenly started beating us at them?) These are the ones we keep coming back to.
Rummikub: when a Romanian man under the Soviet regime isn’t allowed to play Western card games, he invents a game with tiles and calls it Rummikub.
Qwirkle: like Scrabble, but with shapes and colors, so it uses a different mental skill.
Scrabble: like Qwirkle, but for nights when Mama feels like winning.
Quiddler: Scrabble for people who don’t like Scrabble.
The music teacher in me wants to mention two singing games that will train the ear to recognize certain intervals.
Category. Say you look at a piano and find the notes E and G. In solfege singing, you could call them Mi and Sol (think the Sound of Music). This forms a definite tonal distance called a minor third interval. In a group of any size, you use those two notes to sing, “One, two, categories, tell me the name of [clap] [clap] [name of category, such as, ‘animals’].” Then you go around the circle, taking turns naming something in that category. You have to sing the word using those two notes!
Doom-Doom. My dad must have invented this game. The parent becomes a rolling log on the floor, slowly singing the theme to Jaws (doooooom - doom - which forms the interval of a minor second - the distance between any key on the piano and the very nearest key, black or white). The kids have to jump over the log. As the music gets faster, the log rolls faster, and the kids jump faster. At the climax of the music, the log becomes a shark that can grab legs and pull down kids.
The object of the game is to escape the shark. The game ends when the youngest child starts crying (always too soon).
In addition to building gross motor skills and aural awareness, Doom-Doom facilitates psychological self-discovery. It is how I discovered, as I was pinned under the weight of a grown man and three brothers, that claustrophobia could kill me and spelunking would not be my vocation.
Pets and livestock don’t seem practical in our economy. But when I saw how they got my daughter outside and moving when there weren’t other siblings to play with, there was no looking back. The chickens came first. Then the dog. Then the ducks. Then the rabbit. Then just this week the ducks found a new home so we could make way for more…
Social distancing does not equal staying housebound!
Tennis works for us because two or three can play, and no matter our fitness level each of us gets a workout. We have to drive to a court, but we can still improvise in our driveway or the neighborhood basketball court. (We just heard of pickle ball for the first time - that might become the next thing.)
Wildflower naming. Kids have an amazing memory for plant identification. We would carry the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers with us on walks and stop to identify anything we didn’t recognize. Have you ever tried to describe a flower in enough detail so that someone else could draw it? It’s challenging, but the field guide gives you vocabulary to do so.
Similarly, bird counting and identification can be interesting to kids and stimulating for adults.
The following works of fiction make for terrific read alouds or audiobooks that accommodate a range of ages.
Rascal by Sterling North
You've heard of Treasure Island and Kidnapped by master storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson, but have you actually read them? Alfred Molina's reading of Treasure Island (Listening Library 2007) and Kieron Elliott's performance of Kidnapped (Recorded Books 2015) are exceptional!
If you’ve seen the film versions of Cheaper by the Dozen, too bad. Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's embellished re-telling of their real upbringing is hilarious and fascinating. The sequel, Belles on Their Toes, is possibly funnier than the first, but a little naughtier, too.
Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat is a short and humorous re-telling of the antics of two rescued owls in Saskatoon, Canada.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The Borrowers are tiny people that live in hiding off the provisions of human beings. Norton actually describes how they build things to their size in enough detail you could do it yourself. (For an interesting film adaptation, see The Secret World of Arrietty.)
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a fairy tale about a princess cursed with the loss of her gravity - and a lightness of mind that confounds her parents. We enjoyed this story so much that in 2018 I produced a real-deal audiobook of it. It’s been updated and re-released! Download and stream for free here.
And, finally, though this is not something the family does together, this product deserves praise.
The Tiny Baking set will enable your child to explore in the kitchen without making a huge mess or using up ingredients too quickly. (The recipes are quite good, however, and you will sometimes wish it had been Big Baking rather than Tiny.)
So, isolated families, you know what to do.
Get your free copy of The Light Princess.
Order a Tiny Baking set for each of your children.
Support your local Tractor Supply or Southern States and pick up a box of fuzzwumps.
And, above all, do not let what you can't do keep you from doing what you can!