Five family games to try this winter

We spent the spring teaching the kids Rummoli, Poker and Blackjack — and the fall rediscovering oldies like Pictionary, Careers, Scrabble, Monopoly and Clue — so our family was ready for some new-to-all-of-us games when Christmas rolled around.

Between the generosity of family members and Santa Claus, our family received plenty of entertainment.

At eight and 10 years old, our kids are in the board game sweet spot. They’re old enough to understand the rules of just about any game, but still young enough that they want to play with us. Hooray! 

From card games and puzzle games and games where the pieces look like literal candy, here are five games that I highly recommend you try this winter …

BLOKUS ($20)* 

I had no idea what this game involved when I ordered it, but the colourful plastic pieces looked like Tetris bits and bobs, so I expected the game would be to fit the pieces together, Tetris-style. It’s actually nothing like Tetris — surprise! 

Four players are required, or you can play with fewer people and take turns playing for the “ghost player(s).” Each person starts placing their own plastic candy-like pieces, snaking them across the board, and the trick is that your own pieces can only touch by their corners. 

The object of the game is to use up as many of your pieces as possible, and it’s addictive. My sister and brother-in-law and I spent hours playing this on Christmas Day, and now the kids love it, too.

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Nova Scotia parents hold their breath

“Seven days.” 

It sounded really spooky when it was whispered in the 2002 horror movie, The Ring, but it’s even more menacing when said in the context of an extended holiday break from school.

Parents across Nova Scotia collectively sucked in their breath when Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang announced schools would begin their holiday break early (by two school days) and go back late (by five school days). 

For some working parents, this means spending hundreds of extra dollars on unexpected childcare — not to mention scrambling to arrange it. For others, it means muddling through another seven days of trying to work while also feeding, supervising and entertaining children.

For someone like me, who works from home, an extended holiday break is inconvenient and annoying but doable. Hell, I survived five months and 25 days of “March Break.” I can grumble through seven measly days.

My real problem? I’m terrified it won’t just be seven days.

The last time the provincial government told me my kids would be home from school for two extra weeks (following March Break), they wouldn’t take them back for six excruciating months. “Two more weeks.” “Four more weeks.” The spring was filled with empty promises, and COVID only started improving in June when it was time to shut down schools for the year anyway. 

When teachers return on Jan. 4, they’ll do continuing education sessions to learn more about online learning methods. I know this is something they need to be prepared for, but it makes me shudder even thinking about it. 

Virtual learning was not good for our family. I don’t want to go back to a life where my kids cry every day — a life where I cry daily, too, when they can’t see me. I don’t want to go back to being a teacher and a mother and an employee and an entrepreneur, all day, every day. I don’t want to go back to the days when I cried into my phone because I was never alone and also desperately alone, all at the same time.

Students are scheduled to go back on Jan. 11, a little more than two weeks after Christmas Day, so we can see how we fared over the holidays. But even if things went well, after the holidays come two gross, cold, sicky months: January and February. (March is no peach, either.) 

While I truly do appreciate living in a region where we take precautions to keep everyone safe, I’m anxious that the government — in an attempt to keep cases as close to zero as possible — is not going to make good on their promise to prioritize keeping our kids in school. Call me paranoid (I certainly am) but my neck is prickling with the fear that they’ll throw those words around again: “An abundance of caution.” 

If the government feels it’s easiest to just keep schools closed and make students learn at home — working parents be damned — we’re stuck back in virtual learning mode. 

The trouble with these school closures is that they do something that might be just as dangerous than the virus itself: they brew resentment between parents in different situations.

We may all be parents of similar-aged kids, but we are not all in the same boat. Some parents are in yachts, some are in canoes and some are flailing in the waves without even a lifejacket.

Pandemic-related school closures affect families in different ways, and it divides us. 

Some stay-at-home parents are thrilled to have extra time to sleep in and just relax with their kids, while other stay-at-home parents’ mental health suffers when they’re with their kids 24/7. Some working parents will happily go on E.I./CRB and enjoy a break with their kids, while other working parents will be put through the ringer just to hang onto their jobs and get through the days.

And so, nervously, we wait. We circle Monday, Jan. 11 on the calendar. We cross our fingers that “two more weeks” doesn’t become another broken promise. We pray that Nova Scotians follow public health guidelines over the holidays and we don’t wind up with cases shooting up while Christmas trees come down. 

Call it PTSD — I certainly do — but I can’t shake the fear. And for every parent who delights over the possibility of another extended break, there’s another parent who’s already feeling defeated at the thought of going through that again.

Muddling through a COVID Christmas in Atlantic Canada

Judy Garland’s version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas has never been so accurate:

“Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight …

“Next year, all our troubles will be miles away …

“… Someday soon, we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow …”

It’s shaping up to be a COVID Christmas here in Atlantic Canada, and even the most optimistic people are probably struggling to be cheerful right now. (The Judy Garland song made me tear up and I’m not even a crier.)

Our whole lives, we’ve been told the holidays aren’t about presents – they’re about spending time with the people you love. Now, families and friends are exactly what’s going to be taken away for many.

It’s hard not to be a little (or a lot) depressed, especially during a season where you’re supposed to feel merry and bright.

And so, counting active cases instead of counting sugarplums, here are a few ways our family will be preparing for our very first (and hopefully only) COVID Christmas …

Continue reading in my parenting column, The Mom Scene …

The creeping COVID dread as numbers slowly increase

As cases creep up in Nova Scotia, so does my sense of dread.

I know it isn’t reasonable to expect zero COVID-19 cases across the province, but the announcement of each new case feels like a single nail in the boards threatening to seal our front doors shut.

“Let’s just get through Christmas,” some say, as if a province-wide shutdown in January is all but guaranteed. I want to scream when people tell me they’re not only expecting another shutdown but actually — get this — looking forward to one!

Um, I did not have that experience.

My husband and I spent weeks anticipating drastic layoffs in our hard-hit industries, and we both went through temporary layoffs — all while keeping the kids from finding out. Our finances took a hit since my freelance income evaporated overnight. Homeschooling was ugly across the board, especially when trying to do my own work at the same time. Someone called the police on our children for playing in their own yard with our next-door neighbours “not a full six feet apart.” My anxiety was through the roof. It was a miserable season for all of us.

Continue reading in my parenting column, The Mom Scene …

When school cohorts form playground cliques

In my daughter’s entire eight-and-a-half years, I don’t think anything she’s ever said has shocked me as much as what she admitted last week.

It all stemmed from school recess — and since everything in our lives has been affected by COVID-19, it’s no surprise that even childhood friendships have been shaken up.

Our daughter attends a large elementary school with hundreds of students. In previous years, they spent their recesses and lunch hours roaming around the school grounds with at least two entire grades. The only limitation was that they had to choose if they were going “out front” (playground, basketball court, pavement area, etc.) or “out back” (larger playground, field, sliding hill, etc.)

Now, in the times of COVID-19, outdoor play is very different. The kids must stay in their class cohorts, and each cohort is assigned a different “zone.” They can’t leave their zone or mix with other classes. Our son has even described a “class bin” of outdoor balls, so they can play without getting contaminated by another class’s germs. It’s smart, and it’s working.

Neither of my kids mind the change, thankfully. They each have friends in their class, and they don’t seem to care that they’re told where to play. They each have a favourite outdoor zone, and that’s it — end of story.

The problem is that it’s not working for everybody.

Having a very limited number of children in a zone — just the students in their own class — means not everyone has a good chance of scoring a playmate for their outdoor time.

Sometimes, kids don’t have their good friends in their class. They might spot them across the soccer field, but they can’t go to them because they’re not in the same cohort.

Sometimes, kids are struggling with their fellow classmates. They’ve just spent hours with them, and now they can’t even escape them on their “break.” (Imagine taking every coffee break with a colleague who bugged you!)

Sometimes, kids are shy, and it takes a lot of nerve for them to ask a classmate if they can join them. If they get shot down, they’re often hurt and too embarrassed to ask anyone else. They can’t go find a friend in another class, and they can’t even run off to another part of the playground. They’re stuck.

This is affecting my daughter, but not in the way you think. She’s not the one being left out — she’s been the one, at times, leaving others out …

Continue reading in my parenting column, The Mom Scene …