The COVID-19 pandemic has had a lot of unfortunate consequences. Almost everyone has been feeling stressed about hygiene, finances, social distancing and boredom. But for parents, they have to think about all of that (and more) for their little ones too.
So we interviewed a dad who’s made a career out of staying home with his kids and coming up with ways to engage, entertain and educate them. Sergei Urban from TheDadLab has been posting challenges, experiments and child-friendly activities for years to his almost one million followers on Instagram. He’s not a scientist or teacher, just a dad who hates to let his two sons get bored.
Sergei started TheDadLab 4.5 years ago to inspire parents to engage with kids using regular items around the house.
Tell me a little bit about TheDadLab, for anyone who doesn’t know.
“About four and a half years ago, I started my Instagram page. I wanted to help parents find cool toys for their kids to play and learn with at the same time. So, we just started taking photos of toys that I have at home. That’s how TheDadLab came about. Then I started showing off the activities that I do with my kids.
“Honestly, I’m quite a lazy parent, but I’m all ears when it comes to advice. I think others are like me, too. The thing is, if you don’t play with your kids, they find their own ways to entertain themselves. I found that as a parent you have to come up with something to avoid disasters.
“I would do some activities and think, “Okay, why don’t I show them off online?” People started enjoying it, so I started showing more sciencey, artsy stuff. Just sharing my daily life, my daily struggles. I’m not perfect, but I think that’s okay.
“I think TheDadLab is great for busy parents. You don’t need any special skills, equipment, or materials. It’s all around the house. I just open my kitchen cupboard, take a few ingredients, and get started. And all the experiments that we do are fun for adults, too.”
"The thing is, if you don't play with your kids, they find their own ways to entertain themselves."
Your work is tied to your parenting. Have you noticed any kind of change in your ability to balance the two since this pandemic started?
“Yes – I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. If you work from home, you still have to do all your work. But now, you have kids in your home. I work on TheDadLab from home, full time. I have two boys, and I have my huge online community, which I call my third child. I think it’s nice to have the time, one to one, with all three of them. With my two boys and with my community.
“When my boys were going to school, I had time where I could create some content, answer some comments, and come up with some crazy stuff. Now, I have more of my two boys.
“And lots of people are looking into the stuff that I do! So I feel I have to provide as much information as I can. I’m doing a lot of stuff, like live streams on my Facebook page, daily challenges on my Instagram. It’s gone crazy everywhere.”
It’s an increased period of demand for your kind of content, with less hours in the day to produce it!
“Yeah, that’s why you probably notice that quite a few live streams are happening. The main reason is because you film it, and it’s ready.
“But if you need an idea for some cool science experiment you could do with the kids, you can still just search for TheDadLab, find my YouTube page, for example, or my Instagram page. Hopefully you find something I’ve done before that fits your interests.”
Sergei and his youngest son in busier times!
Your audience are mostly parents. Are they experiencing many common problems?
“I mean, obviously they worry about certain things to do with the virus. Explaining to kids what the virus is, why they can’t go out anymore, all that kind of stuff. But people have also started thinking more about education. People generally don’t know how to educate kids. They don’t have the information, so they go online and look for it. And there’s too much information!”
“Yeah, they don’t know where to start.”
What kind of things do you think parents can do to keep their kids engaged, and entertained?
“I mean, it’s all about the routine. This is a new experience for the whole family so it’s important to have good communication with your partner. To know exactly who does what. You need to have a schedule. Without a schedule, it’s difficult. You need to have variety.
“For example, we always leave some time to do activity books. We include free play, reading time, quiet time and outdoor play in the garden. And we mix it up. Some screen time isn’t harmful either. Watching some science shows. It’s okay to show them TV, too. It’s another way for them to get information.”
“Just think about all the daily stuff you thought about teaching your kids, but never had the time. Like how to wash dishes, or how to sort laundry.”
It’s a schedule to keep the kids entertained, but it’s also a schedule for you, as well. To keep your sanity while you’re stuck at home.
“Yes, and the thing is, some people think, “Okay. So, my kids aren’t going to be at school for perhaps a very, very long time, so I have to do something about their education.” What we have to remember is that we’re not professional educators so we don’t have to be hard on ourselves.
“I use activity books. I found all the ones that the boys started, but never had the time to finish. I get them to sit down quietly and do these. It’s a relaxing way for them to get educated.
“You can also do regular things, and the kids are still going to learn. Just think about all the daily stuff you thought about teaching your kids, but never had the time. Like how to wash dishes, or how to sort laundry.”
That’s what I love about your challenges, they’re really problem-solving related.
“The responses to my Instagram challenges have been overwhelming. So many people are actually doing it. I’m getting lots of messages. But they’re just a starting point. If you have older kids, you can challenge them to build a tower as tall as you. Or to use materials that relate to a book they’re reading.”
Like combining different subjects at school?
Yeah, it’s cool they’re teaching everything separately at school, like chemistry, physics, mathematics. But one of the advantages of educating from home is integrating different subjects into your challenges.
Sergei’s curiosity helps make learning fun.
You recently brought out a book, and there’s a bunch of online resources now widely available for educational purposes. Are there any you’d recommend?
“I sometimes use Twinkl. It’s a site where you can get activity books at home. You can print out, give it to the kids, and they fill in those forms, you know, doing assessments. We have printed a few mystery-themed ones. They do some small tasks, and they learn, and at same time – free us up to do some work. Twinkl is definitely the place to go.”
How do you explain situations like this to your kids?
“I basically tell them the truth. There’s nothing bad about that. I don’t know, once when I was taking my older one to nursery in my car, and we were passing by some burial grounds, and he was saying, “Oh, what is that there?” I was thinking, “Is it really something I want to explain to my kids?” Then I thought, “Okay. Why not?” So, I just explained. I’m not afraid to talk about death to them.
“We took this approach to COVID-19, too. We actually showed them the video by Kurzgesagt. It just explains how it works in real simple terms, and just gives you best advice. I noticed that my younger one now washes hands more than anyone else in the family. So, I think, at some level, he got the information that we have to wash more. I think it’s good. If we’re talking about positive outcomes from this situation.”
“This is our opportunity to have quality time with our kids, and get to know them even more. We get to find out exactly how brilliant our kids are!”
Have you noticed any other positives come out of all this?
“Now we’re not only thinking about Coronavirus, but how many other viruses we kill by washing our hands. Kids are learning so much about viruses in general.
“Another positive, parents are getting more involved in their kids’ education. Kids don’t really love sharing whatever is happening with their life, so this is our opportunity to have quality time with our kids, and get to know them even more. We get to find out exactly how brilliant our kids are!
“In fact, people are learning all about online education now in general. Even for themselves. People might use the time to learn how to play chess, for example. Even if they don’t have kids and are just bored at home. Lots of silver linings!”
TheDadLab on Linktree
Sergei is always using new platforms and discovering new ways to provide helpful parenting advice. You can find a link to buy his book, TheDadLab: 50 Awesome Science Projects for Parents and Kids, right at the top. You can also find links to his Facebook Group and an Amazon kids’ gifting guide.
And of course, you can find all his social links through the icons at the bottom. Head to his Instagram and try out TheDadLab Challenges. They’re a great way to get your kids’ minds and bodies active during their time in isolation.