Tips for Supporting Learning at Home

I worked part time when Derek was a toddler. Every morning we would rise and then make and eat breakfast together. We’d take a walk, go to the grocery store, take the long way home, play in the backyard, read some books, reorganize the tupperware, and then have a tea party with his lovies. After all that, exhausted, I’d fall onto the sofa and turn on Jack’s Big Music Show, thinking, “What a great mom! I’m so interactive and engaging! And it must be close to naptime what with all the real world learning experiences I’ve just provided my son.”

Nope—8:37 a.m.

I’m sure parents of toddlers can relate, and parents of older ones can look back and snicker along in relief with me. However, in these unprecedented times of school closures due to COVID-19, we as parents find ourselves back in this same boat, with our children suddenly at home and the ocean of minutes passing like hours.

It’s critically important that we as a society do everything we can to keep our communities safe and our families healthy. This also means ensuring your family finds a working system to keep everyone’s mindset positive and intact.

So let’s set some ground rules:

Zone Defense

If some or your whole family is at home, remember that everyone needs solitude sometimes. If you are lucky enough to have a home that can provide everyone their own “me” space, great. If not, designate a space in your home that is a “quiet zone.” Rules for this zone include, “If I’m here, I don’t wish to be bothered.” I’m picturing those clocks that people hang in their store windows that say, “Back at 1:15.”

Create some signals that indicate you are working, or your child is learning, and respect those signals. I’m lucky enough to have a home office, and when the door is closed, everyone knows it’s work time. (Full disclosure: in reality, whenever the door is closed, I will see Derek’s head poke in with a plate of food in his hand, mouthing and dramatically pantomiming, “How long do I heat this up for?” But parents, do as I say, not as I do.)


Those that know me could call me organized. Yes, I plan for vacations a year ahead of time. Yes, I have a spreadsheet for packing. Yes, my linen closet is labeled and color coded. Isn’t everyone’s?

Kids need routine, and in a situation like this with so much unknown, providing a known routine can be immensely comforting. Many websites I’ve been reading advocate for creating a schedule for the week, even if your entire family is at home. Get up with the alarm, and get dressed and ready as if you are going to work or school. (As I type this I am wearing the same jammie bottoms I have for a week.)

With little ones, it may help to create a schedule for the day the night before and go over it before bed or in the morning. For older children, involve them in the process. Derek is 14 now, so yesterday I “asked” him (you know, in that way parents ask but are really telling) to create a schedule that I could sign off on. He jumped off the couch and completed it happily.

Just kidding. The schools near me are closed indefinitely, and until yesterday, Derek thought he was on an extended vacation. Also, his four cumulative hours of daytime marked “Free” (read: “in my teen man cave playing on my computer”) got, shall we say, revised. But seriously, let your children have as much flexibility and agency with their schedule as you are comfortable with. I put Derek’s ideas on sticky notes, and he can change the schedule around as he wants.

I do love structure, but I am the first to admit that when it comes to kids, there also needs to be a balance. In these times of heightened stress, we all need a little more downtime. You don’t need to structure their day like a typical school day, but a four-hour stretch of doing nothing might also wear thin after a few days.

Learning at Home

In my social communities, I have witnessed a collective, understandable anxiety from parents suddenly asked to be their child’s teachers. So first off, remember that you have always been and always will be your child’s primary teacher. Furthermore, I went to school to be a teacher, taught elementary school, then spent a decade as a school administrator, and I can tell you this: no one expects you to be teaching your child in a manner that mirrors what would happen in school. Remember that learning can and should happen everywhere, and these times will certainly call for flexibility.

For those are that learning at home, here are some ideas you may not have considered:

Off-Screen Learning

  • Play with a Deck of Cards: I suppose you could teach your kindergartener how to play Texas Hold’em, but in the event that isn’t for you, did you know there are a ton of games that reinforce math skills using only a deck of cards? And beyond a deck of cards, Family Math, a phenomenal resource by the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, is also bursting with games to play at home.
  • Read, Read, Read: I know I say this in every blog, but again, this is a perfect time to pick up a book and read. For children who are reading independently, have them record their reading or make a video reading a book to a class. I bet your friends and family would love to watch your kid reading Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! And don’t forget about audiobook services, which have many great titles for kids. Audiobooks don’t replace the physical act of reading, but in tandem, they can be a fabulous way to hear the language of books. Also, consider a family book club! Rotate who chooses the book–parents, it is really comforting to read a children’s book right now–and have a sit-down, grown-up discussion about it, hopefully with food. Check out some discussion prompts for book talks here.
  • Go on Scavenger Hunts: Give your child a clipboard or a pad of sticky notes and send them on an indoor scavenger hunt for just about anything. Here are some ideas: find all the squares/circles/triangles, find everything yellow, or find everything that starts with the letter M. For older students, find compound words, long vowels, right angles, or fractions.
  • Label Things: Okay, I know I’m manic with labels. But hand your early learner a pad of stickies and have them label the living room.
  • Use your imagination and build something: In my day, before the internet and cable TV, a refrigerator box was like, the coolest thing ever. Don’t have a refrigerator box lying around, and don’t feel like ordering one today? Give your child a box full of recycled materials, such as paper towel tubes, egg cartons, empty cereal boxes, and a roll of tape and have them go at it. You can also give them a challenge: can you build something that can hold two books on top while only using 6 things from the box? What’s the tallest thing you can build only using 2 items, but as many of those items as you want?

On-Screen Learning

While we don’t want our kids to be staring glassy-eyed at screens all day long, there are certainly learning opportunities online as well, many of which have been circulating these days. Here are a few additional ideas:

  • Take a Virtual Tour: Many museums and other places are offering free virtual tours. Have your child pick a place to “visit” and write, tell, or record five new things they learned.
  • Interview a Family Member Virtually: With many people in the same situation, make a virtual date with a family member for an interview. Here are some interview questions you can try (Family Interview: Culture and World Events and Interview: Everyone Makes Mistakes), or you can make up your own.
  • Listen to a Book: Many services online have made their books and the audio recordings available online. Who doesn’t love to be read to?
  • Create Something: I painted a bunch of Harry Potter peg dolls for my sister once. (Really, look it up. It’s a thing.) Well, my super creative niece decided to use them to re-enact all the books using a stop-motion video app. The point is there are tons of ways to be active rather than passive with technology. Have them make a movie, create a website, animate a cartoon, code a program, or write a book.

I hope this helps relieve some stress as we all navigate this new terrain. Don’t forget to give yourself a break from time to time, and remember we are all in this together.

By Audrey Lee, an educator with 20 years of experience and an expert on standards-aligned instruction and blended learning. 

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