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9 ways to keep your child academically engaged while stuck at home


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I don’t know if my present anxiety levels are at an all-time high because I’m terrified of the possibility of catching COVID-19 or if I’m just overwhelmed by the thought of being quarantined for two weeks or more with a preternaturally curious and questioning 6-year-old (who seems to have an impossibly protracted “WHY” phase going on right now). 

Since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, a pandemic, every family I know has been wondering how we’ll manage to keep our kids occupied at home for a week or more—without access to museums, amusement parks, play spaces, and play dates. 

So I called every teacher and home-school parent I know to get some tips—ideas of how to stay organized and efficiently plan to keep kids happy, stimulated, and academically challenged while they’re out of school. 

1. Come up with a plan

Jessica Kopp, a 4th-grade teacher in Los Angeles and mom of two, recommends that you go into any extended time at home with a plan. She suggests coming up with a daily schedule that you hang on the wall for the kids to see. “There should be some sort of schedule just like there is at school,” she says, to keep kids on track with routine and to keep them from falling into too much screen time. 

What we want is structure and learning: We don’t want the kids to wish for a pandemic the way we wished for snow days as children. Kopp recommends this schedule as inspiration from Confessions of a Homeschooler. It lays out the whole day to keep you organized with learning and to keep kids on task. “Kids need structure and structure will actually help the day go faster,” she says.

2. Give choices

Being both the parent and the teacher 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is a recipe for push-back from your child. Kristyn Tyler Hall, a mom of two and a digital learning and teaching facilitator in Onslow County, North Carolina, recommends creating choice boards for students. Choice boards offer options for assignments on a subject, or they can be used for free-time activities so your kids can be more independent in their decision-making—leaving you a few moments of peace when you are cooped up together for days. 

ThisReadingMama.com breaks down choice boards and how to create them. “Choice boards can focus on one content area or each square can be on a different content area. Activities need to be completed during a given time frame depending on the time given but students have the choice of the order they complete them in,” says Hall. She says the internet is filled with samples of choice boards that you can simply search for and print out based on whatever subject you want to focus on. She recommends doing an internet search for choice boards that fit your needs before recreating the wheel. 

3. Create a story

We all remember sitting through slide-shows of family vacations. How about having kids create a slide-show of their family stay-cation? Suzanne Melo Udell, a mother of two and a 4th-grade teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts, recommends kids make a GoogleSlideshow to create at home and share with classmates and friends. This activity helps build narrative story-telling skills in kids of all ages and keeps them connected to their friends and classmates while they are out of school. She recommends you help the kids edit their work and do a final check to be sure they have a fine-tuned their finished product before they share it with others. “My 4th-grade students have been researching and making slideshows about fast cars and sports heroes. They are choosing to write, revise and edit without any prompting from me,” she says. 

4. Find math problems in everyday life

Elena Karas, a mother and writer in Monrovia, California, recommends sending kids around the house and having them measure everything in a given size. Each day of the week have them measure everything in the house that is of a particular size—like everything that is one inch long. The next day add an inch and have them find everything that’s two inches long. Increase the size incrementally for each day they are home. 

Lori Rosales a mother of three and educator for Los Angeles Unified School District through UCLA’s math project has tips for finding math everywhere in the house. She charges her three children to count everything in her home. She has the little ones count things one-by-one, but has older, elementary-aged children put items in groups to count. She also has them come up with word problems based on sharing. For example, “If you and your two brothers have 36 mini-figures and you share them equally how many will each get?” Rosales also recommends baking with your child and talking with them about fractions. 

5. Turn the world into your science lab

Karilyn Owen runs the travel blog No Back Home and homeschools her son when they take off on international excursions, so she is well-versed in making every life experience a learning opportunity. She recommends breaking out the microscope and looking at anything and everything through it. She also plans to get a butterfly garden going with her son so they can track the development and life cycle of monarchs. 

Depending on where you live, you can start either an indoor or outdoor butterfly garden where you and your child can chart the growth from egg to butterfly. Most butterflies and moths stay inside of their chrysalis or cocoon for between five to 21 days, so it’s possible you’ll be able to chart the entire growth cycle of a butterfly during your time at home. 

If raising a butterfly isn’t your thing, you can start a seed garden and see how each seed germinates over the course of your time at home. Both activities are great for extended stays in the house because they prompt a child to check in daily and teaches them how to record, chart, and analyze progress. 

Rosales recommends going out into your yard or on your street and having kids think critically about the natural world: “I ask, where are animals, what could they be doing underground, or how can we sort the leaves—that sort of thing.”

If the weather isn’t cooperating for you to get outside, you can turn your kitchen into your science lab. The internet is a treasure trove of experiments using stuff you probably have lying around, like food coloring, oil, corn syrup, and dish soap. 

6. Make each day “Spirit Day”

You can either make up your own, like “Dinosaur Day” or “Punctuation Day,” or you can take a cue from the already established national calendar days and build a lesson plan around each one. Something like National Artichoke Day (March 16) may seem anti-climactic in every day life, but celebrating something so common can be a gateway to learning about Greek mythology, geography, agricultural trade, and horticulture. Google trivia on the given day’s celebrated subject and talk about new things you yourself are learning with your kids. By letting them see that you also are learning something new you can inspire curiosity in your kids, building lifelong learners and finding the exciting in the mundane can help them look at the world differently. 

7. Get artsy

Parents often bemoan is that there isn’t enough art in schools. Take this time to focus on art and see where your child’s creativity takes them. Takako Oishi-Marks, a mom in Orange County, California, says that she uses YouTube tutorials to teach her son how to draw complex characters and animals. “When I get tired and my son still wants to make something, we’ll go to YouTube and type something like ‘how to draw a king cobra’ and he enjoys drawing by himself… this usually kills 30 minutes to an hour.” 

If you’d like to keep the kids offline, there are terrific process-art handbooks for parents and kids available as well as thematic activity books that can really challenge the imagination and build narrative story-telling skills, or you can find books that help them through the step-by-step process of drawing their favorite characters. Marks also plans to use a musical learning app to help her son hone his piano-playing skills. 

Kopp says she charges her kids with making new toys. “We call it ‘Make It and Do It Day.’ It’s actually inspired by something my husband thought up to do with his family when he was a kid,” she says. Her family makes sculptures using salt dough, airplanes made out of coffee cans, and even replicas of the pig Pork Chop from “Toy Story.” “You name it, we’ve made it. Just think of all those empty Amazon boxes and bottles of hand sanitizer that people are going to have lying around that they can ‘make it and do it’ with,” she says.

8. Get a puzzle going

They are mainstays at ski-lodges, vacation rentals, and your grandmother’s coffee table. When you are cooped up for a week or two on end, it’s time to introduce your kids to the collaborative, time-honored tradition of the “week-long puzzle challenge.” Put out a puzzle that is just beyond their comfort level. When boredom strikes they can work out a  portion of the puzzle and it’s a calming and re-focusing family activity when the stir-crazies strike. Putting out a puzzle that takes them days to finish will teach them perseverance and as well as problem solving skills. 

9. Use the internet to your advantage

Look, you’re going to need a break here and there if you’re caring for and teaching your kids nonstop. While your school district may have online options for learning, here are some favorites from the teachers we asked. Jasmine Young, a mother of two and a 2nd-grade teacher in Boston Public Schools, recommends Prodigy Math

“It’s free, and the kids are so into it.  It’s like an online fantasy world where you win quests by doing math problems,” she says. Parents see the results and can assess their children in specific areas without them even realizing they are being tested. “Kids can play with their friends, and it’s safe because an adult makes the “world” and only invites specific people. My kids love it,” says Young. She also recommends StoryLineOnline.net, a free read-aloud website with stories narrated by some of the world’s most-famous and celebrated actors. 

John Rodney, a high school English teacher in Los Angeles, says he loves NewsELA for their articles on current events and various topics that can be searched by grade level. He also loves Flocabulary, which teaches key ideas on various topics such as math, English, social studies, and puts them to song for better memorization and understanding. “Kids really get engaged with these songs, and activities are included with the lessons.”

For Punam Bean, a mom of three in Los Angeles, figuring out how to keep her kids engaged is an every day process. She utilizes a host of online resources to keep her home-schooled kids interested. She likes websites like Outschool, which lets her kids engage in small online classes, Khan Academy for free online courses, and Teachers Pay Teachers to help her find downloadable resources, learning units, and printables. 

Being faced with a pandemic is no joke, but if home-school parents can do it every day, most of us can hopefully pull this off—and keep our kids academically on track—for a few weeks.   

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