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10 Parents on the 2020 Buys That Made Life a Little Better at Home

published Nov 4, 2020
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Last spring as the world shut down, I snapped up masks, Purell, and something expensive and seemingly frivolous: an outdoor sectional. I’m not kidding when I say that impulse purchase saved us. It got me through the long, lonely first months of quarantine, the worry about my kids’ emotional health, and the heartbreak when I suddenly lost my dad in early summer. 

It’s like we magically got a bonus room in our cramped house. I take my coffee and laptop there, listening to the morning birds (so not me!). It makes our backyard feel a bit like a fancy hotel (or, as my hubby jokingly calls it, “the Shitz-Carlton”). It gives our family a special s’mores spot and my sons a place to safely hang with a friend or two (since it’s modular, the pieces spread a safe distance apart). Before, I could never justify the cost of outdoor seating—but then suddenly the set seemed as core as a box of KN95 masks. Thanks, Covid?

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As it turns out, I’m not the only parent coping with 2020 by buying something to make life easier and more fun. “In an instant, many of us went from leading highly structured, carpool- and commute-driven lives to near-lockdown,” says Phyllis Fagell, LCPC, school counselor, therapist, and author of Middle School Matters. “On the whole families have had more togetherness and downtime. It has come with a good deal of stress, so parents have focused their spending on items that ease the difficulty of this time and facilitate connection.”

We’re particularly plunking down money for stuff that brings our brood fun and recreation, Fagell adds. “We want to shield our kids from discomfort, keep them active, preserve their physical and emotional health, and help preserve some semblance of normalcy and joy during these uncertain times,” she notes. So we’re investing in smile-inducing stuff — backyard games, trampolines, pandemic puppies — “to protect kids and just let them be kids.”

From cheap thrills to four-legged friends, these are some zero-regrets 2020 purchases, according to moms and dads.

Under $25

Best buy to escape the 24/7 news cycle

Sometimes the whole family craves a break from alarming news alerts. “We got Disney + because we need more happy endings in our lives this year,” says Ken Greenberg, a dad of two in Mamaroneck, NY. The $6.99-a-month fee nets you Disney and Pixar classics (Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Ratatouille, etc.) and the Star Wars-based series The Mandalorian, plus the big draw: the original Broadway version of Hamilton (no cheery ending, alas, but amazing storytelling). Greenberg also signed up for ($8.99 a month), to catch favorite shows, ballets, and classic movies like the original A Star is Born. “My wife and our 17-year-old son, Josh, watched Pippin because they both love the music,” he says.

The free app kids actually want to play with their parents

“Board games are a non-starter in our family,” says Lesley Eccles, founder of the Relish app and mom of three kids ages 16 to 7. “But we got an app called Among Us that the whole family can play together. It’s VERY on trend — and fun!” The premise: You’re all on a spaceship getting ready to lift off — but you need to determine who is the imposter in your midst. It’s not for little kids, but many parents would be OK letting second- or third-graders and up play it. 

For tweens and teens, Jackbox is another best bet. Since you play over TV or laptop with each player’s smartphone or iPad serving as their controller, you can play remote with another family (cousins across the country, those fun neighbors down the road, etc.). Games are $6.99 and up.

The school supply that gets kids pumped to learn

Suddenly having to double as a preschool or kindergarten teacher? It helps to find ways to make learning fun. Cara Shultz, an entertainment editor and mom of a 4 1/2-year-old son in Rutherford, New Jersey, found a little one that has made a big difference: sweet-scented crayons and magic markers. “My son ALWAYS wants to use them and it’s so much easier to get him to do schoolwork with markers that smell like candy,” she says.

The $15 kit that makes giant bubbles

After the local playgrounds shut down, health reporter Barbara Brody wanted another way to entertain her 7-year-old daughter outside, so she turned to a highly-rated Amazon bubble kit — and it wowed the whole block. “My daughter must have spent hours chasing the bubbles, popping them, and trying to hold them (a trick we eventually figured out),” Brody says. “People would randomly walk by and stop in front of my house just to watch us making giant bubbles on our driveway. Two neighbors (one with an 11-year-old and one with a 9- and 5-year-old) liked it so much they bought the same kit. It was the best $15 I spent all spring.” The set comes with a wand, non-toxic bubble potion, and a book with fun tricks. (Pssst! There’s also a unicorn-themed version for $17.)

A way to make breakfast funny AF

Sometimes in the midst of a once-a-century pandemic, you have to throw the parenting rules out the window and wing it, as Maureen Falvey, a leadership coach and mom of a 10-year-old, discovered. “The game-changer for us was a $10 pancake dispenser that lets me make pancakes with bad words, which makes us laugh our asses off,” says Falvey, who lives on Long Island, outside of New York City. “I told Charlotte this is just our Covid-talk and we are going to clean it up on the other side.” You could also use it to write nice words like “rainbow” and “love,” but where is the fun in that?

Under $100

A nerve center for tracking wonky school schedules

Ask Petra Guglielmetti, a Maine-based freelance magazine writer and mom of three kids (ages 10, 8, and 5), her single best purchase this year and she doesn’t hesitate: “A gigantic wipe-off calendar from Home Goods to keep the daily-fluctuating hybrid-school schedule visible to all,” she says. For a similar one, this dry erase board calendar sticks right to your wall or fridge and is removable and reusable.

A kitchen tool to make pizza for a crowd

Writer Sharlene Breakey, mom of a high school- and college-age kids in New York City, has one favorite purchase for streamlining quarantine family dinners: an extra pizza peel. “We got really into making pizza, but it’s always such a drag trying to juggle getting all the pizzas rolled and in and out of the oven,” Breakey says. “Having two, we always had one to roll out on or take pizzas in and out of the oven. It was so cheap and a total game-changer. We loved them so much we use them for cutting boards on taco night too.” 

Tech that 100 percent makes the day better

Long before Covid times, Logan Martinez, 8, was a big fan of the family’s smart speaker with Alexa. “He asks Alexa for jokes, songs, the weather. It’s endless entertainment for him,” says his mom, Patty Adams Martinez, a talent booker and co-author with Logan of Kitties Don’t Eat Quesadillas. So early in lockdown, she and her husband splurged on a second one, for their bedroom. “On weekend mornings, Logan piles in our bed with us and we all listen to music together. It definitely brightens our day.”

With a restless middle schooler and high schooler at home, Andrei Oleinik needed a way for their kids to get exercise and blow off steam. So the Thousand Oaks, CA, graphic designer set up a “home gym” in their garage with a punching bag and old-school stuff like a medicine ball and jump rope. “It’s been a good outlet for my boys,” he says. “In addition to staying fit, it helps them release the stress of being stuck in the house with their family all day long.”

A setup for socially-distant hangs

“We got our 15-year-old daughter, Bella, a projector and screen and it has been great because she’s able to have a couple of her friends over. We set up chairs 6 feet apart and they watch movies outside,” says Bijan Anvar, a dentist in the New York area and dad of two. Tip: If you want to save a little money, you can skip the screen and hang up a white sheet.

$100 and up

The STEAMtastic remote camp/babysitter

Leslie Yazel, Brooklyn-based programming strategy editor at The Wall Street Journal, invested in a creative remote camp for her now 10-year-old-daughter. “We paid for our daughter to do CinemaKidz YouTube camp and we bought her a tripod. As an only child during the pandemic, it was great for her to be able to make stop-motion movies with her doll and explainer videos with her guinea pig so her screen time was creative time (and so I could get work done!)”

Something thrilling you swore you’d never buy

This was the year of parents saying “Sure, why not” to upgraded backyard fun. In April 2020, sales of outdoor recreation items were up 51 percent and sales of playground equipment were up 81% over the previous year, according to NPD data. “We got a big trampoline for our backyard,” says Jackie Miller, a teacher who has a 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. “I love it too. It gets my exercise minutes in very quickly.”

Another parent to take the leap: interior designers Nate Berkus, dad of 5-year-old Poppy and 2-year-old Oskar. The home design guru shared in a September Instagram post an adorable photo of him jumping with Oskar on a recessed trampoline, with the caption: “Nailing fatherhood since 2015.” 


Credit: belefront/Shutterstock

A pandemic puppy (or other furry friend)

And finally, there is that one life-changer that you can’t buy on Amazon. The best buy that came up again and again when I queried parents was a four-legged friend. Amy O’Hara and her family added furry pals, plural, adopting a dog and two kittens. “In all fairness, our ‘elderly’ dog and cat died within two weeks of each other at the beginning of Covid and we were very lonely staying home all day,” O’Hara, an estate lawyer and the mom of two teen sons, says. “This year we got 1,000 fun dog toys … and a second Boston Terrier,” says Liza Sheker, who has 12- and 17-year-old daughters. Getting Winn, the new puppy, acclimated to the other dog and family bunny has been a happy project for the family. 

Fagell also relates — as an expert and as the mom of three: “I’m 100% guilty of being one of the gazillions of parents who got a puppy this year after years of saying no,” she says. “And I have to say, Moose has improved all of our lives. I have two teens and a tween who miss interacting physically with their friends, and Moose is five pounds of pure affection.” Reader, after years of saying no to a pet, I too caved on the pandemic puppy, and I have to say, a brand-new family member is …  priceless.