Like many parents around the world, my family and I have spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to reorganize our lives around the imperative of social distancing. In particular, with schools closed, my wife and I have been haphazardly experimenting with educational activities and routines that will stimulate out two children’s minds and, just as importantly, occupy their time. It’s only been the first two weeks of what will likely be a much longer homeschooling term, but we’ve identified a few principles that work for us, and that may be helpful to other parents cobbling together their own COVID curricula.
Teaching is a natural part of parenting. Whether schools are open or closed, parents are always their children’s most important teacher. In fact, parents can never stop educating their children, since anything they do has a profound impact on the way their children see the world. This means that anything a parent does with a child, even mundane chores, qualify as valuable educational experiences. While more structured educational activities can also be constructive and rewarding, the mere fact that you are spending time with your child is an inherently educational encounter, no matter what you do together.
Balance structure and spontaneity. The first week of homeschooling, my instinct was to try to recreate my children’s academic schedule as faithfully as possible. In the second week, these efforts slacked off considerably. In the third week, I am optimistic that we will be able to strike a balance between a consistent routine and the random diversions that tend to distract us away from this routine. On the one hand, the most meaningful learning experiences are the ones that take us “off the beaten path,” but, on the other hand, this phrase and the experience it describes have little meaning if there is not a “beaten path” to diverge from.
Involve children in decision-making. Children are natural learners. They seek out things that they are curious about, and they find their own ways of investigating them. While my wife and I have been pulling ideas for educational activities from books and websites, the most interesting learning experiences we’ve had so far have been inspired by comments that our children made about, for example, early marine life, the Titanic, and black holes. Taking these comments seriously has not only allowed us to collaborate to learn more about these topics, but it has also provided a more important meta-lesson in the process of how to identify questions and find answers.
Use screen time judiciously. Since schools started closing, the internet has been bristling with online learning games, educational apps, synchronous online classes, chat platforms for kids, and other screen-based tools for students. Screen media have played an important role in the educational ecology of our homeschooling environment, but I have been trying to be mindful about how we use them. We have a non-negotiable no-television policy during regular school hours, and we try to limit screen time to those times of day when neither parent is available to facilitate a more interactive activity.
Embrace the opportunity. The current moment is one of panic, anxiety, sadness, and confusion. The threat to all our lives, and to the life of society itself, is very real and very urgent. For those of us who are lucky enough to be social distancing among our families and loved ones, however, the situation presents a rare opportunity to get to know one another more deeply than we would in the course of our uninterrupted routines. In an age when there are normally so many stimuli competing for our children’s attention, this time alone together provides a rare and precious chance for parents and children to discover and explore common ground. Even our shared fear and disorientation provide a basis for deeper interpersonal understanding.
One way or another, sooner or (more likely) later, the necessity for social distancing will pass, schools will reopen, and life will go back to something resembling normalcy. When that time comes, this period in our lives will likely always stand apart as a time of heightened intensity. People will not ask “Where were you?” like they do when they talk about the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, but they will ask, “What did you do with yourself? How did you spend your time? How did you find sanity and peace of mind?”
For me, as I suspect for many other parents, my efforts to help my children grow and learn throughout this time of crisis provide the basis for how I hope to answer these questions in the post-COVID future.
Randy Laist is an English professor at Goodwin University.