How to Stay Home: The Three Easiest Things You Can Do to Keep Your Family Well While Staying In During COVID-19

Billions of people around the world are now staying at home. Whether due to preventative social distancing, quarantines, or riding out mild symptoms in isolation, many of the challenges of not being able to leave the house are the same. 

My own family has been feeling cooped up and longing to return to the days when we can enjoy simple pleasures like meeting up with friends at a park or joining the hustle and bustle downtown. Then I realized that, as a researcher and designer who has worked on the mundanity of our domestic environments from the point of view of architecture and environmental cognition, I’ve actually spent years preparing for this situation.

So we started incorporating some simple practices during our own shelter-in-place that have been helping us meet some of the physiological, psychological, and social needs that we typically meet by going out into the world. And over the course of a two posts, I’m going to share these ideas.

This first part has three really simple takeaways that have to do with bringing aspects of the outside world into your home:

  1. Open your windows for fresh air
  2. Get as much light as possible
  3. Reach out to others

In the second part, I’ll share some ideas about some more unusual and creative ways that you can inhabit and manipulate your space to boost your family’s well-being–but here in Part One, I wanted to share the simplest and highest impact actions. So let’s dig in.

1. Open your windows for fresh air

The problem: Air inside a building is rarely as healthy as outdoor air, and poor indoor air quality causes significant and measurable changes in our mood, mental and physical performance, and even our long-term health. With your whole household crammed in the same space nearly 24/7, the air is getting warm, humid, low on oxygen, and high on substances such as exhaled carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds and pollutants such as carbon monoxide from cooking and other household activities–and even gasses such as methane from your flatulence. While this problem can be especially acute in modern buildings, which tend to be more airtight, most of us would benefit from opening our windows more.

The solution: Open your windows. This clears out your stale air, letting in fresh oxygen and diluting smells, humidity, and pollutants that tend to accumulate indoors. Opening your window also lets in the sounds, smells, and views of the outside world, supporting a sense of connection to the world outside.

If you live in a multi-unit building with a centralized forced-air heating or cooling, bringing more outdoor air into your unit is especially important, as it can dilute any coronavirus virus particles or other pathogens that are circulating. A recent study has found that maintaining a minimum level of outdoor air ventilation actually reduces transmission of the influenza virus as much as would happen by vaccinating 50-60% of the building’s occupants.

Concern: Weather. What if it’s cold or hot out? You still need fresh air, but you can open your windows more at whatever time of day when the outdoor temperature is more moderate. You can also adjust your thermostat by a few degrees to spare your heating/cooling bill, and adapt your attire to stay comfortable. Then make yourself a hot tea or ice water, and enjoy that outdoor feeling.

Concern: Letting in the virus. If your window opens directly onto a busy sidewalk, you may be concerned about the virus wafting in. In this case, try using a different window or door facing another exterior space–or ventilate at off-peak times. But you’ll still benefit from fresh air, and most of us should be opening our windows wide and often.

2. Get as much light as possible

The problem: Sunlight is much brighter than what we get indoors. Outdoors, we might experience up to 100,000 lux of brightness on a sunny day, or 1,000 lux on a cloudy day, as compared with 50-250 lux inside a home or office. Among other health benefits, daily exposure to sunlight promotes the release of mood-boosting serotonin, which helps us focus and feel calm; and melatonin, which regulates our sleep-wake cycles. Staying indoors nearly 24/7 could nudge us towards a form of depression akin to seasonal affective disorder, even in the spring or summer.

The solution: Open your blinds during the day, get brighter artificial lights if you need to, and soak up some rays. Let as much natural light in as possible to your home, and don’t hold back if you want to follow those sunbeams around like a cat. If your lighting and mood are dim, consider investing in a light therapy lamp, which is a very bright full-spectrum light; or simply swapping some bright bulbs into your existing fixtures. If you’re going out at all, try to go when it’s sunny. It’ll be good for your mood, health, and vitamin D production.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a balcony, backyard, or other private outdoor space–even if it’s shaded–you’ll benefit from any time you can spend out there, especially in the morning and midday.

Possible concern: Will manipulating my light exposure disrupt my sleep? Not if you dim your lights, reduce screen time, and/or use a color shifting app on your devices for up to three hours before bedtime. Daylight and bright, full-spectrum light are otherwise beneficial for sleep throughout the day, and especially in the morning.

3. Reach out to others

The problem: You’re lonely. The social distancing that is necessary right now is also deeply alienating, as we’ve lost many of our usual social patterns and outlets. Family members outside your household, friends, work colleagues–and even the stranger with whom you would normally exchange nods or make small talk–are now farther away.

The solution: Keep reaching out, to those closest to you, to distant friends, and even to strangers. Most of us have been using texts, phone calls, and video conferences to connect with family and close friends. One day, this might mean sharing meals with loved ones via FaceTime. Another day, it could be rounding up a group of friends to watch a movie at the same time, with a line open for real-time chatter. Or video playdates with your children’s friends. The feeling of presence–of sharing the same space and time with others–is a goal in itself, so don’t feel pressure for every moment to be dense or high quality in interaction. You can be quiet, tired, or bored together.

It might feel awkward to reach out to people who you know less well, but it’s been shown that weak social ties are also important to our sense of well-being. If you normally chat with your nail technician or a colleague in another department for an hour each week, you’re now missing that interaction. So if you can, give a quick text to say hello. The same goes for old friends, your soccer teammates, online parenting group, and anyone else you might usually interact with.

And yes, the same goes for strangers. Fleeting interactions can still be part of our routine, even if it’s just waving at a neighbor you’ve never met before, from your balcony.

If you strike up a conversation with a neighbor, consider offering to exchange contact information (while keeping 6′ of distance), especially if they’re elderly or vulnerable. Prosocial behavior has been shown to reduce the negative impacts of stress on our mental health, so building ties and offering help will be good for you, as well.

Possible concern: This is awkward. Yep. But remember that everyone is going through this same experience right now, and others are likely missing out on social time, too.

Your Takeaways

So, to review: get air, get light, and connect with others, since these are three things that are in short supply when we’re holed up indoors. While these ideas are obvious, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would benefit from doing one or more of these with more consistency, so now it’s your turn to start putting these into practice.

In Part Two, I’ll talk about the bodily, sensory, and spatial practices and experiences that you can try out to relieve some of the grinding repetitiveness that can otherwise come from inhabiting the same space without reprieve. To be the first to know when Part Two is posted, and to keep in touch with Littldata’s other content for parents, please join my free mailing list. I’ll be sharing the most helpful, practical tips for parenting during the pandemic that I can find, as well as other content to help you figure out your family logistics.

Until then, thank you for reading, and be well. If you’re interested in indoor toys for independent play, outdoor toys to make socially-distanced outings more fun, a map of COVID-19-friendly outdoor destinations in San Francisco, please check out these posts and more on Littldata’s COVID-19 page.

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About Littldata: At Littldata, my goal is to help parents figure out their family logistics by sharing calendars, maps, lists, and spreadsheets–as well as research-backed blog posts and data graphics. This post uses Amazon Affiliate and referral links.

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