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How to Keep Homebound Kids Engaged in Learning During Uncertain Times

The current pandemic has many schools and daycares closed, and parents are scrambling to balance working at home and caring for their children. Cabin fever is setting in for everyone, making it especially difficult to keep children entertained. We sat down with two experts in childhood education and play to get their tips on how to keep homebound kids engaged in learning—and fun!

Q: So many schools are now closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you experiencing in your own community and with your own kids?

Tyler Kearns, coordinator for the Before/Afterschool Program in the School District of Clayton, Missouri:
Our district is getting ready to move to digital learning, and as the afterschool coordinator I will be sending out activity and play ideas for parents and kids. The goal is to keep the play and social-emotional learning happening. What we're seeing from parents on social media is that they are not ready for this time at home—working from home and making sure the kids do the same and stay on task is a juggling act. It's also stressful to think you have to "keep up with the super parents"—you know, the ones that are all over social media posting the amazing experiences and activities they are doing with their children during this time off.

With my own kids (ages five and two), the biggest challenge has been the weather and being stuck inside. Our focus is to have fun, use this time for family, and find activities for everyone throughout the day, while also making sure everyone gets some time to themselves. It's important to keep in mind that when your child grows older and looks back on this, they may not remember the amazing science experiment you did together, but will remember they spent this "scary, confusing" time with you.

Q: What recommendations do you have for parents to keep their kids engaged and learning at home? How does it vary by age?

Dr. Brian Stone, senior lecturer at Northern Arizona University specializing in curriculum, instruction, science education, elementary social studies education, and play:
While it is beneficial to provide academic instruction at home, parents can rest assured that their child won't "get behind" during this temporary delay in their formal education. Instead, parents should be focused on this unique opportunity that may never come again—a chance to spend time with family and play. This time simply playing together may well be a time that children remember for the rest of their lives.

Some ideas:

  • Play games, including board games, invented games, and sports (just be sure to maintain safety and proper social distancing if you're playing outside).
  • Play with your child while they play with toys, and don't dictate the play. Just be there and follow their lead.
  • Build, tinker, and explore through the natural engine of your child's curiosity. Engage in imaginary play. Let your child's imagination be the lead in world-building (e.g. defending a castle against a dragon or going on a quest to find a unicorn).
  • Create props, write stories, and make art to match your child's world-building.
  • Limit screen time including watching TV, playing video games, and interacting through social media on phones or tablets.
  • Keep in mind that older children and even adolescents need time to play too. Have them create a new game or innovate an existing game. They can create a new musical composition if they play an instrument or build new complex structures with Legos. Have them create an invention, or try to solve a problem in their world, state, or local community.
  • Projects are always a good activity and can be presented in a variety of ways. Students can create models, draw diagrams, create a song, make a comic strip, act out different topics, and so on.

Tyler Kearns: Enjoy this time with your family. Meet your kids where they are developmentally, give them a choice in their learning, and just be present with them. There are amazing ideas out there – but they may not all be right for your child. If your child is not excited or enjoying the experience, the learning is not happening. Do activities based on their interests: How can Paw Patrol be used to teach science; how can Frozen be used to teach math? And if you can involve some sort of physical element, even better. Kids need to move and be active at all ages. Screens can be a great tool but break up the day with some physical activity like dance parties, yoga, outside play, and some free play time. Don't forget, things you are already doing can be great for learning, like cooking, baking, at-home exercising, gardening, cleaning, replacing batteries, and doing other chores around the house.

Q: Can you provide examples of play-based activities that parents can do with their kids to build skills in specific areas, e.g. math or language arts?

Dr. Brian Stone: World-building is a good opportunity to integrate learning across subjects. Here's how it works: Use your child's imagination to create a story (you can co-create with them and their siblings), then follow their lead and prompt them with questions about their world. Here are some ideas:

  • Play out the defense of a castle from a mean dragon. Ask your child how to fortify the castle, or how the dragon became so mean. You can then take this simulation to building the castle with blocks and testing different designs against the attacks of the dragon. You can write a creative story with the child and play it out with toys or act it out.
  • Simulate a landing on another planet. Ask your child how you would get there, what you would need to bring, and how long would it take to get there. Create props and "launch" from the living room to get to the child's bedroom (the destination planet). Create costumes or just imagine costumes. Design a logo for your program. Help guide your play by researching real human spaceflight like the Apollo program or upcoming missions. Use a baking pan and lay a foundation of a basic crust with loose flour on top. Then toss raisins or rocks into the pan to simulate impact craters. Use different sized objects and drop or throw them from different heights and measure the size of the craters.

A few more examples of the many ways to integrate across subjects and incorporate play and learning:

  • Create a Rube Goldberg machine, which uses kinetic energy in a chain reaction to accomplish some simple tasks. Here's one of many examples.
  • Create a crime scene investigation game (can be modified for any age) like, "Who spilled the milk?" and have your children investigate evidence that leads back to a person. You could be advanced and create multiple steps and clues that they have to follow or include just a few steps for beginners.
  • Measure out the heights of different animals and create a block graph (i.e. the blocks are stacked to the height of the animal) to compare them.
  • Have the child step outside of the room for a minute and change some things about the room (i.e. move objects, switch pictures, and add new things), then have them come back in and try to identify all of the changes. Switch and give them a turn.
  • Have children draw or paint and create artistic patterns to different styles of music, then have them explain their rationale for each pattern.

Q: Many schools now focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) education. What can parents do at home, especially now, to encourage interest in these subjects?

Tyler Kearns: Time to break into the junk drawer and all those recyclables! STEAM can be easy when you break it down to its simplest form. Find a problem and design something that could help, and then report on it. Examples include:

  • Engineering challenges like marshmallow towers with toothpicks.
  • Have an egg drop challenge by creating something that will keep an egg from breaking.
  • Use recyclables to build robots and create machines (there are tons of ideas online).
  • Have construction block building challenges.
  • Make aluminum foil boats and go outside to float them or send them down a creek. If you don't have this option, the sink and bathtub work great too.
  • "Bottle bowling" is a great way to teach counting and subtraction.
  • Have a sock puppet show, or make a play or movie.
  • Build math skills with dice games.

Q: How quickly will children lose the skills they were working on in school?

Tyler Kearns: In my opinion, for a learned skill to be retained we must use that skill and figure out how it applies to our world. A student learning about simple machines, like ramps, must learn to use them through play and exploration to understand their functionality in the real world. I think the most important thing is for parents to become involved in their child's learning and work with them to find the real-world applications and connections in what they are discovering.

Q: Do parents need to set up an "office" for kids going to school online? Any tips on setting up a virtual schooling space? Does it help/make a difference?

Tyler Kearns: If possible, kids should have a dedicated learning space to use each day when it's time for "school mode." This will help provide some consistency and normalcy to the day. Have your child help design the space (location, seating choice, etc.) by asking them what will help them focus and learn. Work with your child on the expectations and limitations when using this space, like where their phone will be at this time, whether they can listen to music, is the TV on or off, etc. These are all things that will be individualized to each child.

Written by Tyler Kearns & Brian A. Stone, Ed.D.

This article was republished with permission and originally appeared at The Genius of Play. Photo courtesy of The Genius of Play.

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