By Danielle DeSimone

As a service member gets ready for deployment, their spouse is not only facing their departure – they are also facing the reality of many months of single parenting. Taking care of the daily tasks of life while also keeping military children’s spirits up can be challenging, especially when trying to find a new normal for the next 6-18 months. Here are eight great things to do with military kids when a spouse is deployed to help those months go by quickly:

1. Get Creative with a Countdown

Everyone knows about deployment countdowns, but why stick to a simple calendar when there are so many ways to get creative with it? A deployment wall is a great way for kids to have a visual reminder of their deployed parent and how long until they come home.

The wall can include two clocks, one with the children’s time zone and one with the time zone of wherever their deployed parent will be stationed or a world map showing where their parent is deployed, which is a great way for children to understand their parent’s situation. Family photos on the deployment wall will especially help younger children remember their parent’s face.

And instead of just crossing days off a calendar, try thinking outside the box when building a countdown to homecoming. Some families go with the classic two-jars method, with one jar filled with a marble per day of deployment, labeled “Days to Go,” and the other labeled as “Days Down,” which can be gradually filled with the marbles from the first jar. Other spouses will fill one jar with small, individual pieces of candy – one piece to be eaten each day – to help visualize the deployment. **Making a paper chain, **and removing a ring of paper each day, is a quick, easy and affordable option as well. Or place messages from the deployed spouse into envelopes and open one each day.

However military spouses choose to count down the days, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s meant to be a fun activity to make the time go by a little faster, and a little more smoothly.

2. Stay Connected to the Deployed Parent

The distance, lack of cell service, faulty internet and conflicting schedules can all make it difficult to keep in touch with a deployed parent as much as the family would like. To always remind kids of their deployed parent – especially little ones who don’t fully understand time and distance – military spouses can do simple things, such as keep photos of the parent around or discuss them frequently to always keep them present.

Obviously, just talking about them isn’t enough – military kids want to talk to their parent. That’s where programs such as the USO’s Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program are crucial. Through this program, service members can walk into participating USO locations on base, record themselves reading their child’s favorite book, and have that recording shipped home. Deployed parents can also go to USO centers to Skype over free Wi-Fi, connect over social media or make free calls home with Operation Phone Home.

3. Make a Deployment Bucket List

Giving military kids something to look forward to throughout the months of deployment can help keep spirits high. Military spouses and their children can come together as a family and make a list of some exciting activities they’d like to do, or goals they’d like to achieve, before the end of the deployment. A day at an amusement park, learning to cook a meal on their own, going fishing for the first time, completing 10 acts of kindness or taking a new exercise class – on their own or with the family – can help military children pass the time of deployment, but also make the best out of a challenging time.

4. Establish New Family Traditions

With one family member missing, it might seem too sad or strange to build new family traditions into the routine, but creating these special moments throughout the deployment can offer children structure and something to look forward to beyond just their parent returning home. It can be helpful for military children to have quality family time during the deployment – even if it’s not the kind of family time they’re used to.

Weekly or monthly traditions can be anything from establishing a family movie night, to going on a weekly hike, to organizing an exciting, monthly outing to the zoo. Acting as a single parent during deployment can be overwhelming, so organizing events like this might seem like one too many responsibilities. It is important for the spouse to take care of themselves and push through the deployment at a healthy pace, but organizing family traditions during deployment is a great way for military families to stay close during a difficult time.

5. Visit a USO Center

When having to act as a single parent for six months or more, it’s important to take advantage of all the resources available – in other words, visit your local USO center! USO centers are the perfect place for military spouses and children of all ages to find entertainment and connect with other military families.

At USO centers, you can take advantage of free Wi-Fi, snacks and drinks, books, gaming systems, movies, and many opportunities to network and make new friends. Most of our locations even have programming designed just for military kids.

The USO also offers holiday celebrations and events, such as family game nights, block parties, bingo and art classes. All of these programs and services are dedicated to supporting military families and building a community throughout deployments and after.

Find out why the USO is shining a spotlight on military spouses in 2018

6. Art Projects & Journaling

Deployments are hard on kids. Each age range – from toddlers and kindergarteners, to elementary and high school kids – reacts differently, but regardless of how old they are, the months spent separated from a deployed parent can take their toll. As a result, some military kids struggle in school, others become more reserved, or some may even lash out in anger. Every child reacts differently, which is why helping military kids through deployments can take several different forms.

Art and writing projects are one great method to help military children deal with the stress and confusion of deployment, as well as help them express their emotions. Encourage children to paint, draw, sculpt or scribble how they’re feeling. Daily journaling can help release of feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration and fear that are common in military children going through a parent’s deployment. As a military spouse and parent, it is an excellent way to bond and discuss any concerns or challenges children might be experiencing.

7. Take a Lot of Photos

Don’t just do it for the Insta – taking photos as a family is a great way to remember significant moments, birthdays and family outings that happened during the months of deployment. For the deployed parent, this is a nice thing to come home to, so they still feel that they know what their family has been doing for the past 6-18 months. For the military children of the family, these pictures will help them tell stories and share memories with their deployed parent when they return.

8. Plan an Incredible Homecoming Together

The most exciting part of a deployment: when the deployed parent comes home! This is exciting for spouses, deployed service members and military kids. A great way to welcome a deployed service member home is to ask them if they have any specific snacks or meals that they would like to eat when they arrive home, and the kids can help with the grocery shopping.

Other fun activities include making posters and signs together as a family to welcome the service member home, decorating the car with removable paint or making T-shirts and accessories to wear at the service member’s arrival. Preparing for mom or dad’s homecoming is the best part of deployment – not because of the sparkly posters or flags decorating the front porch, but because service members are finally reunited with their families.

Editor’s Note: Danielle DeSimone is the USO’s marketing content specialist. She grew up in a U.S. Navy household as a military child and went through multiple deployments.