Kenya: Just Being Kids... Tough Task of Keeping Children Indoors

Jemimah Musau is a mother of two, a 10-year-old and an eight-year-old.

It's been a trying couple of weeks for her since the government shut down schools indefinitely due to the coronavirus crisis.

Her children know about the disease, well, as much as children within this age group would comprehend, and know that they could contract it if they went out to play.

But 16 days indoors, it seems, is too much for children that had been used to spending most of their waking hours either in school or outside playing. "Our block has 30 apartments, and most of the tenants have children. Therefore, my children have plenty of friends to play with," says Ms Musau.

When the government closed all schools on March 16, the neighbours agreed that no child should be let out to play until things went back to normal. "We figured that it would be counterproductive to pull them out of school to protect them from the virus and then expose them to it at home," she says.

Unfortunately, her children are more irritable than usual and are fighting more, factors she attributes to being confined indoors for long.

"Once in a while, they fight like all siblings do, but now the disagreements have increased, such that I am sometimes forced to place them in different rooms until they calm down," Ms Musau offers.

Studies show that being confined in one place for an extended period of time can have negative psychological effects on a person, and no, children are not immune. Their world has been turned upside down. All of a sudden, they were pulled out of school and locked up at home.

Many parents confess that they have no idea how to respond to the situation they find themselves in.

"How do you explain this to a three-year-old?" poses Ms Wangui Kariuki, who is having a difficult time getting her daughter to stay indoors.

Ms Eunice Bickett told her three-year-old son that the wind had blown too much dirt outside, therefore they had to wait until it recedes so they can play. She figured this was easier for him to comprehend than a lesson on a virus that even scientists are yet to fully comprehend.

However, Ms Mercy Kamau is having a relatively easier time.

"My son is five, and he understands that he cannot go out until this 'corona' goes away. In fact, he reminds us to wash our hands regularly and clean our phones," she says. Ms Kamau ensures her son is engaged throughout the day with school work infused with fun activities. She has gone a step further and drawn a weekly timetable outlining what her son needs to be doing at any given time.

Herein lies the key to helping your children better to adjust to their new restrictive environment - structure. Psychologist Anne Wambua advises parents to draft a schedule for their children.

"Have a timetable that lists when to study, when to play, when to have meals, even when to sleep - this will not only keep them occupied, hence avoiding boredom, it will also motivate them and give them a sense of purpose," says Ms Wambua.

Also, allow some form of social engagement, for instance having a video chat with their favourite cousins or calling their grandparents since they cannot visit.

"Children thrive and flourish in an environment of structure and predictability. During the school term, these two conditions are met by the school environment and nature of learning: timetable, scheduled play time and homework -- the shutting down of schools threw this into disarray," says Ms Sarah Karioki, a counselling psychologist with the Amani Counselling Centre and Training Institute.

"For children, play is their language and the medium through which they learn how to interact with their environment. This method of learning has been hugely disrupted by the social distancing rule. They are being kept away from their friends/playmates for reasons that may not be quite clear to them," she offers.

Ms Karioki says this could lead to anxiety and frustration, which may manifest as tantrums, wilful breaking of rules, poor appetite and even loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Psychosomatic tendencies (physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches with no medical evidence) may also be present.

Online programmes are among the measures being implemented by public and private learning institutions to return some semblance of normalcy in children's lives.

However, more needs to be done to better cope with the indefinite stay-at-home directive since it is not just about education, there needs to be a balance.

The psychologist suggests the following ways to prepare children for the present and the future.

"Be well informed yourself. Gather information from the right sources to avoid spreading falsehoods and pass this information to your children in manageable pieces by keeping it short and simple," she advises, warning against locking up your children in the house alone since it may make them feel confused, abandoned and scared.

As for the looming economic hardship that is projected, as parents adjust their lives accordingly, they should communicate these changes to their children and why they are necessary.

"Let the children know that this is an adversity being experienced all over the world and that they will have to do without, for instance, some of the things they were accustomed to before the crisis."

Once you deal with the anxiety and frustration, initiate the adaptation process at home level: establish their new norm. You will have better results if you involve the children in coming up with new routines and structures that accommodate learning at home.

"Also assign them responsibilities around the home to teach them a skill. Live in the moment and be intentional about the quality of life your children will live going forward."

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