Through the uncertainty of school closures in the COVID-19 era, many parents like myself are struggling with their new role as teacher. With school closures likely to continue through the summer, parents and teachers worry that children will fall behind academically. More importantly, the loss of a daily routine can disrupt many children’s focus as they mistake these weeks for vacation time.
On a quick impulse, I queried friends and educators for helpful educational resources during these challenging days—fun ones too. I got tons of responses from sympathetic parents trying to entertain young children who struggle to understand why their playgrounds are off limits. Thankfully, this quick-acting community of parents and educators is helping to provide some sort of routine for our household. I’m grateful to all the educators who have rushed to make virtual learning available, and I’ve provided feedback on many of these resources here.
In a conversation with Julie Poole, EdS, NCSP, a school psychologist in Port Orchard, Washington, she stressed that setting up a home learning environment for the normally school-bound child is a completely different process than homeschooling. Appropriately considering our new online and at-home learning situations as “remote learning” as opposed to actual homeschool will help define our roles during this new norm.
This is an important differentiation as current remote learning plans are still teacher-guided through schools. With remote learning, many districts, she explains, are providing various options for students to stay on track with their education. Parent-directed remote learning is very different from a prescribed homeschool schedule and curriculum where students’ progress is registered and tracked.
One of the things Mrs. Poole emphasizes as parents set up remote learning plans is providing instruction in more than one way. It’s important to mix it up here, not relying solely on worksheets or letting the screen dominate. Emphasizing the need for problem solving and critical thinking, Poole explains, “We want them to be able to solve a problem in more than one way. We have to have times when the answer isn’t clicked on.”
Poole’s overarching theme in her advice to parents is to set up a schedule—and stick to it. In fact, Poole is less concerned that children are missing instruction in math or reading, and urges anxious parents not to stress over the months of missed instruction.
Instead, building and adhering to a schedule replicates a learning pattern similar to school. Remote learning programs and activities should be a part of the schedule. She emphasizes that it really doesn’t matter what the schedule looks like. Poole suggests allowing students to help build their schedule. Once built, though, students have to stick to the schedule for a whole week—without fail.
The lesson here is that we don’t always get to do what we want. The good news is that in ten or fifteen minutes, students get to move on to something else. And next week, changes can be made to the schedule. When children grumble about what they’re doing in the moment, “that means they’re getting it,” says Poole.
“Routine and consistency opens the door in their mind[s] for learning,” says Poole. One of the biggest challenges for teachers beginning new school years is establishing these routines with the children, often spending a whole month adjusting young learners to their schedules. If parents can maintain a structured environment for students, returning to school and lessons will be a breeze. Poole stresses that adults are increasingly productive with a schedule. Kids aren’t any different.
One of the dilemmas I discussed with Mrs. Poole is the issue of social time for young children. In an effort to keep my very outgoing son’s social life flowing, I made FaceTime playdates, but quickly found that the interactions were not productive. The screen became a platform for show-and-tell, and what was meant to be much-needed time to connect evolved into a self-centered spectacle.
Virtual social time is new to them. When teaching new things, Poole reminds us that children thrive on routine: the more structure, the better. For younger ones, she suggests calling a parent beforehand to pre-game children’s visual phone calls with a planned theme, such as a particular dinosaur from their rooms. By encouraging your child to ask questions about their friends’ toys, the virtual discussion becomes reciprocal.
Poole let me know that it’s important to keep virtual discussions to an appropriate amount of time. That duration might be ten minutes for kindergarteners and first graders. Poole also suggests limiting the number of people in the meet-up to the age of the child if classes are using platforms like Zoom to connect.
A six-year-old might see his teacher and five friends on the screen. The classroom setting offers social cues like body space and overall awareness that simply can’t be had in the virtual environment, so students can likely only attend to an equivalent number of people to their age in years.
I’ve attempted to compile some useful resources here that can assist parents with children of varied ages in creating meaningful play and learning opportunities.
ABC Mouse is an interactive site that combines fun, positive reinforcement with skills practice. Students first get a chance to create their own emoji and room, where they get to set up a virtual environment with “things.” Moving from one lesson to the next is rather intuitive, and the program is built around a system of positive reinforcement. Students must earn tickets by completing educational lessons, and in order to play games and purchase items to enhance their games and virtual playrooms, they must spend their tickets.
Through one game, children can take their hamster through an obstacle course, and in order to build their challenge course, they must “purchase” more tubes for their hamster in the store. Some tubes and obstacles cost more than others, and so saving is also encouraged.
One drawback: the system freezes often, and so parents may be summoned to fix the hang up. The sequential process is bottlenecked by students trying to move pieces to precise places in order to move to the next level. This repetitive process emphasizes fine motor skills with a mouse rather than a pencil.
Right now, the site is running a special, with 50 percent off of the annual price. I saw it as $60 well spent for the year, even if I’m needed for a few mouse clicks.
A charter school teacher turned me onto Edmentum.com, a platform for primary grade skills training and assessment.
Through their Study Island program, students K-12 can practice reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. The reading section poses some great critical thinking questions towards comprehension.
Access is free for the year in response to COVID-19, and the program will assist parents in measuring students’ progress. The downside is that the questions and lessons are a bit dry for a young child, and I quickly saw my son becoming a slave to a test screen rather than my preferred hands-on approach.
E-Learning for Kids is a great resource that offers engaging educational videos on topics like science and math. Videos are for the most part age appropriate and fun. One video teaches the senses to a kindergartener by having her help set up a camp in Santiago, Chile, using her five senses.
Advanced children may grow bored. For example, a kinder lesson has children counting to ten. Still, the lessons are generally engaging and fun and may provide more value by encouraging age appropriate computer literacy skills. Even if for that reason, alone, the site is worth exploring with little ones as it has a wide variety of lessons and topics to explore.
Khan is the motherload of online learning resources with lessons for all ages—even some higher-ed level skills practice.
For younger students, Khan Academy has an interactive app for learning that is free, available through the Apple app store, Google, and on Amazon. They also have free online remote learning resources, including printable lessons. For those seeking a more scripted approach to remote learning, there are age-appropriate daily schedules on Khan’s website that incorporate daily routines and various subject matter for students.
What I particularly love about Khan is the quality of their lessons, great for those looking to help their kids really advance. Lessons are genuinely enriching and progressive in nature. Kindergarteners’ grammar lessons include introductions to the parts of speech with video tutorials that make the concepts accessible for their fresh minds.
The internet is chock full of five-, ten-, even thirty-day STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) challenge calendars for kids. Most require things around the house, but some will take a little pre-planning, like purchasing 100 mini marshmallows and toothpicks for a giant marshmallow tower. How high can your little one build a tower of marshmallows?
Little Bins for Little Hands has tons of ideas for STEAM projects with children. The site has recipes for sensory play activities such as no-cook playdough and slime—even edible slime—with an entire section on slime-appropriate activities. Some of my favorites from this site are all the different ways they suggest experimenting with household vinegar and baking soda. Will the bag burst open?
For a simple STEAM solution that doesn’t require much from Mom or Dad, try printing out a thirty-day LEGO challenge calendar. My favorite one can be found here. I wouldn’t worry too much about how age appropriate the challenge is as the builder will adapt. For example, one of my son’s roller coasters was in the shape of a large square.
For quick STEAM ideas with items that are more likely to exist around the house, KiwiCo offers fantastic suggestions on their DIY page, conveniently grouped by age. The first few activities posted on the page for five- to eight-year-olds were slam dunks for me—making a superhero float with tape and household items, creating paint brushes out of leaves, and using Q-tips to paint with invisible lemon juice “ink.”
Sometimes the virtual learning technology becomes more of a frustrating chore than a “break” from kids. While trading remote learning woes with an educator friend, we both shared similar moments of clarity wherein we shoved pen and paper in front of our littles—how we learned.
In my quest for paper products, one parent turned me on to the resources available through GreatSchools.org. The site has tons of well-written, age-appropriate worksheets for learners ages pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
There are many resources on the internet with free, downloadable worksheets, but I’ve found some to be obvious time-wasters, where both my son and I fail to see any point to the lesson. For this reason, I’ve realized that pre-screening worksheets is a must. I’ve found the worksheets on Great Schools to be generally geared towards some sort of progression in skills. I print one or two per day and incorporate them into our daily schedule, whether math or reading.
As a precaution on technology and language arts, I do think it’s important for young readers and writers to pick up pen and paper. I used to preach to my writing classes that the best ideas often flow from an old-fashioned pencil and notebook. “Put the keyboard down,” I used to tell my students. It’s almost a fail-proof cure for writer’s block, and I have maintained for years that it is “more connected” to the brain and ideas as it eliminates the buttons.
For early writers in their infant stages of learning, I don’t think we can overlook the value of traditional paper. So while it may seem obvious that young learners need to write with pen and paper, during these stay-at-home days, it will be tempting to over-rely on the computer for language arts activities. Keep it simple.
For young readers, I really do love the workbooks and boxed sets from Scholastic. They are put together by professionals as opposed to un-tested materials combed from the internet. Their materials really do go a long way. Boxed book sets for young readers have up to twelve books, which works out to about $1 per day, if reading one per day. Shipping is free right now for $25 orders.
Like many things in life, striking the right balance between virtual learning and one-on-one instruction with paper materials is key here. For the first five years of my son Wyatt’s life, my husband and I were relatively successful at limiting electronics. The idea was that engaging with our son rather than reaching for a phone or a tablet was going to be some kind of triumph over our tech-immersed generation.
Shaky resolutions aside, technology is quickly becoming a savior in our daily routine. Khan Academy’s user-friendly app-driven interface admittedly drove me to purchase an Amazon Fire tablet for Wyatt. I now recognize that I am not going to win this battle. Technology is here to stay, and completely restricting our sons from using it may actually be to their detriment as tech literacy will be an increasingly important part of their professional lives.
So as we shelter from COVID-19, we’re embracing technology, grateful for its key role in enabling our isolation efforts.