How to Use Daily Surprises to Add Structure (and Joy!) to the Day

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Here we are, a full two weeks into a teachers’ strike with no end in sight.

At first, as I wrote last week, I was in denial. I didn’t feel like dealing with yet another disruption to the boys’ school year, so I tried out the anything-goes approach to our days. It didn’t work. At all.

Enter Everyday Surprises!

So I pivoted. I decided to come up with a system to provide some structure to our days, planning out whole weeks at a time; that way, if the strike happens to end mid-week, whoo hoo! I don’t need all those extra plans. But if it doesn’t, well, then, we’re set for (yet another) week.

The system I’m employing was inspired by the book Make & Give: Simple and Modern Crafts to Brighten Every Day. In instructions for the activity “Everyday Advent,” they write,

“When we were young, we could hardly wait until December 1 so we could pry open the first door of our advent calendars. We wanted to create something for our favorite children that would evoke the same feeling of excitement any day of the year.”

This idea instantly resonated with me. Evan and Nate LOVE their Advent calendars. We usually buy them from Aldi and they’re cheap, like maybe two or three bucks.

But the boys love them as much as any expensive gift. They love finding opening the little door that corresponds to each day and discovering whether the chocolate is shaped like a dove, a sleigh, or a bell. It doesn’t seem to matter that the tiny piece of chocolate they get is much smaller than a dessert we might have on a non-December day.

The anticipation and ritual nature of opening those little doors makes the calendar one of their favorite elements of the Christmas season.

How the System Works

So how exactly does the open-a-daily-door ritual apply to managing no-school strike days?

I started by ordering an extra large daily pill container.

Then I brainstormed what activities I’d put under each lid.

Since I’ve found that a good day for us is a combination of responsibilities and fun, I decided each day would contain two strips of paper: a red strip with the day’s chore and a green strip with the day’s fun activity.

Some of the red strips have included:

  • clean and organize the room that Evan and Nate share
  • vaccum and mop their room
  • clean up toys in the basement
  • decorate for Bennett’s birthday (I knew the boys would see this as more fun than chore — I got a kick out of putting a surprise within a surprise 🙂 )

And some of the green strips have included:

  • go to a new bakery
  • have a Lego tops tournament (more on that below)
  • movie and juice instead of quiet time (which, like many other times in my stay-at-home mom stint, has been a lifesaver)
  • play dates

The first morning I explained the system, the boys’ eyes lit up. They read the strips and then started excitedly wondering what the next day’s would be.

Nate loves writing down ideas and making lists (not unlike his mama!), so he became especially invested from the get-go. On that first day he even presented me with my own green strip informing me my fun activity would be to “go write.” 💕He knows me well.

Some Key Considerations

This type of system has worked well for the school strike we’re currently facing, but you could also implement it during a family vacation as a fun way to keep the surprises and anticipation going, during regular school breaks (that winter one can get really long!), or during the lead-up to a special event (stay tuned — more on that in a future post).

In no particular order, here are some recommendations if you decide to create your own red-green box :

Skip Saturday and Sunday.

Maybe that’s obvious, but my kids questioned why those days didn’t contain slips of paper. For me, weekend days are as great with no structure as much as weekdays require it. I didn’t want the stress of two things that had to happen those particular days.

When appropriate, skip the responsibilities.

This tool can be used as a way to create a balanced structure with both responsibility and fun, but it can also used in the everyday Advent sense as a way to maximize excitement and anticipation. Tailor it accordingly!

Take advantage of the chance to get things done!

Evan and Nate’s shared room had been in dire need of a deep clean for quite some time, but unsurprisingly it was always a battle to make that happen.

Working as a three-person team two days in a row helped us get their room looking the best it has in a looooong time.

I got a lot more cooperation from them when the chore wasn’t just something I randomly announced we were going to do that day, but instead the activity dictated by the red-green box.

Tailor your fun to your intended audience.

With St. Patrick’s Day last week, I was tempted to have one of our fun activities be making four-leaf clover decorations. However, when I’d floated that idea past the kids the previous week, their response was lukewarm; sometimes they’re into holiday decorating and sometimes they’re not.

If I’d chosen that activity, it would have been fun for me but wouldn’t have garnered very much enthusiasm from my kids.

And that in turn would have risked undermining their enthusiasm for the red-green box as a whole, a dangerous proposition when my sanity and our collective well-being are hinged to its longevity (that statement is only a teeny bit hyperbole — today is the eleventh day out of school!!!).

Check the calendar and the forecast when planning.

On days when Bennett went to daycare for part of the day, I could do activities with the older two that would have been hard with him along. When rain was predicted, I geared our activities toward indoor play or a movie.

Responsibility or fun, DO IT TOGETHER.

The boys’ room got cleaned because I was in there with them, assigning tasks and offering encouragement. Likewise, when watching a movie was the fun activity, I gave my full attention to snuggling on the couch and watching The Incredibles. What kid doesn’t love getting a parent’s undivided attention?

Being Present to the Wonders

The red-green box has been a wonderful exercise in mindfulness.

I used to become instantly defensive when I heard the term “mindfulness,” given my failure to ever stick with regular meditation.

But I’ve learned that meditation (which I still know I should do and still don’t) is only one small part of the equation. The heart of mindfulness is being present. Of showing up fully for the moment you’re in. Or in the words of Ryder Carroll, “of waking up to see what’s right in front of us.”

And with this teachers’ strike, I’ve woken up to see the opportunity to spend quality time with my kids. Of course I’d rather they be in school. But with the situation what it is, finding ways to enjoy our time together has proven so much better than lazing about in pajamas in front of screens all day.

I’m going to end by telling you about one of the surprise highlights — the Lego tops tournament.

If you haven’t encountered them, traditional BeyBlades are tops with launch mechanisms. When you pull on the launch cord, the top spins rapidly and drops into the little plastic stadium to do battle with your opponent’s. At a summer program last year, Evan learned to make a knock-off version out of Legos. I find his version way less frustrating than the originals, whose launch mechanisms often malfunction, and I love the creativity and engineering that goes into Evan making his own.

Anyway, he LOVES battling them. I grudgingly take part sometimes, but for last week’s tournament, in the spirit of mindfulness, I was all in. We started by examining each top he’d made, discussing its characteristics, and deciding on a name. I wrote these names on tiny pieces of masking tape that we stuck to the tops as labels.

We then created our own March Madness Sweet 16 bracket. Random boxes and baskets became the walls of the stadium. As Round 1 got underway, we laughed at our false starts and marveled in surprise upset victories. I feigned talking into a walkie talkie to tell Security about the baby who’d plopped down in the middle of the stadium floor.

During the heat of battle, we momentarily lost track of said baby. We found him sitting on the open dishwasher lid, extremely pleased with himself. I brought him back to the stadium area and he plopped down on top of the bracket paper. As a result of his wet butt, the paper got a bit wrinkly and the ink smeared. I smile every time I look at that baby butt watermark.

While Evan and I battled, Nate, who’s more the artsy theater type, took it upon himself to draw a symbol for each top and serve as our commentator: “That’s it for now, but more excitement comin’ your way in ROUND 3!”

Nate explaining to me the symbol he drew for each top (with unsolicited help from Bennett 😆)

I would have missed out on so much joy and fun with my kids if I’d simply told them to go have a tournament while I watched from the sidelines. From that day on, I’ve vowed to take at least a little time each day of the strike to genuinely enjoy the boys’ company. Easier some days than others, but well worth the effort.

Next time you’ve got a string of days to spend with your kid(s) or want a fun way to build anticipation, give the pill box idea a try!

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One Comment

  1. Brilliant idea! I may have to use this during summer break. I also love the idea of being all in on with activities.

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