How Parents Can Keep Kids Busy (and Learning) in Quarantine

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Yesterday evening, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that, due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, New York City’s 1,800 public schools would be closed for more than a month starting today. And in the next breath, he made an announcement that put many a parent in New York City—where many workplaces have already closed or gone fully remote—into a real pickle: Remote learning for public-school kids would commence Monday, March 23, a full week after the closure of school facilities. In other words, more than 1 million New York City K–12 students are now on a surprise week-long break, and they’ll be spending every day of it cooped up at home with their parents.

New York City’s schools are among thousands of schools and child-care facilities across the United States that will be closed this week: As of last night, more than half of the states had announced statewide school closures due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Moms, dads, and kids all over the country have suddenly found themselves in a cozy and chaotic new situation. As Timothy McLaughlin and I wrote last week, it takes only a matter of weeks away from school for students to fall disastrously behind schedule on their learning. And realistically, it takes probably only a matter of hours away from school for them to affect their parents’ productivity. So in places all over the country where remote learning will be difficult, impossible, or delayed, parents face a formidable challenge: how to keep their kids from bouncing off the walls or melting into blobs in front of glowing screens, while also avoiding backslide and learning loss.

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Parents can do a number of activities alongside their kids that facilitate active, engaged learning. For preschool-age kids and younger children, Allyssa McCabe, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who specializes in children’s language development, advises parents to find time throughout the day to read books with their kids. “Reading interactively with (not just at) children is very beneficial for language and literacy instruction,” she wrote to me in an email. “Parents should encourage their children to talk about pictures, predict what will happen next in a story, and what characters feel.” She also recommends taking walks outside (to whatever extent possible) and talking about whatever catches children’s attention, as an exercise in language skills. “Name the object and repeat this several times. Describe the object. Ask the child what [he or she] thinks about the object. You are looking at a butterfly! That is a beautiful butterfly, isn’t it? Do you like the butterfly? That butterfly is yellow. And look, over there, there’s another one—do you know what to call it?

Parents can also use their newly plentiful time with littler kids to talk about past experiences, perhaps using photos as a visual aid. “Ask, ‘See, here’s a picture of—yes, Grandma. Do you remember what we did last time we visited Grandma?’” McCabe wrote. “Parents should take a while and stay on a topic … getting their child to elaborate on who, what, when, where, how, and why something happened, and how the child felt about it.” The repeated act of “elaborative reminiscing,” she noted, has been shown to benefit autobiographical memory and narrative ability.

For older (and responsible) kids, certain kinds of independent play can substitute for structured school learning. Michelle Martin, a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School and the founder of a summer literacy program for children, suggests sending kids who are learning math basics on a mission around the house or the building to count all the windows, for example—and then asking them the average number of windows in each room or apartment. Challenging children to pitch a tent—or, in the absence of a tent, create a play fort—out in the yard or at the park can teach kids innovation and resourcefulness. In a pinch, Martin says, it’s always fun for kids to write spelling words or do math problems on the windows using dry-erase markers. (“It’s almost like writing on a wall, but you’re allowed to do it.”)

Of course, the cancellation of school, and the loss of the eight-ish hours of child care it provides every weekday, makes parenting an all-day, every-day job, on top of a parent’s daily routine. And those parents working from home also have the challenge of keeping their kids independently occupied so that they themselves can work. For daily duties that have to happen anyway, such as cooking, Martin recommends enlisting (slightly older) kids’ help. Cooking, she notes, can be a science lesson (let’s talk about how yeast works), a math lesson (what’s a half cup plus a quarter cup?), or a reading lesson (does this label say “baking soda” or “baking powder”?)—and it provides opportunities for kids to learn about nutrition as well as foods and flavors from around the world. When Martin’s own daughter was small, the two of them would shape melted chocolate into letters and numbers using a makeshift piping bag. They would form words with the legible ones when they hardened, she remembers, “and we could eat our mistakes.”

Keeping kids busy during the workday in ways that won’t require supervision is easier the older they are. “For young children”—those younger than 3 years old—“independent play is tough. They really need social interaction,” McCabe wrote to me. “Parents will be tempted to hand over an iPhone or iPad or the like. This is understandable, but parents should also know that the younger the child, the worse this is for their language and cognitive development.” As alternatives that might keep kids sitting still while Mom or Dad types away at their own screen, she suggests setting kids up with Play-Doh, art supplies, audiobooks, or even homemade recordings of their parents reading their favorite books.

Martin also enthusiastically recommends audiobooks as a way to simultaneously keep kids learning and out of adults’ hair; Audible, she notes, the Amazon audiobook subsidiary, has a particularly robust selection of children’s and young-adult literature. (“Jim Dale’s reading of the Harry Potter books—that can keep you busy for a really long time,” she told me. “He does all the voices!”)

Martin, like McCabe, conceded that there’s an understandable appeal to handing kids screens to keep their bottoms in their seats for a few minutes of peaceful, uninterrupted work time. But especially for school-age kids, she recommends adding a twist. “Another way to encourage your critical thinking is, ‘Okay, we’re going to watch this movie, but we’re going to watch it on Thursday. Between now and then, I want you to read the book,’” she said. That way, “you can do a comparative analysis between the book and the movie: ‘What changes? Which one do you think is better? What things did they have to leave out because otherwise this movie would have been four hours long?’”

Martin also recommends local-library websites as rich resources for parents hoping to keep their kids’ brains active. “Don’t overlook the fact that your library, wherever your library is, has a world of online resources that you may never have looked at. Your kids can play games” through some libraries’ websites, she said, noting that some libraries are even hosting virtual or live-streamed reading events. “The library is a wealth of resources,” she said. “Many of us, we’re used to going in and just checking out books—that is a very small fraction of what libraries do now.”

Martin, when I spoke with her on Saturday, was planning a special online story time for some of her colleagues’ children whose schools are closed. She recommends video playdates or virtual story times as measures parents can take with their own kids, too, perhaps in the early mornings or during the lunch hour—not just as a way to keep them learning, but as a way to deliver hopeful messages and make them feel connected to their school or day-care friends.

“Just try to keep as much of that normalcy for kids as you can. Because if we encourage each other to share resources, a lot of times you’ll find richness in that, community-building. It helps the kids feel like the world isn’t falling apart right now,” Martin said. “It’s really easy for kids to feel depressed about how bad things are: I’m never going to go back to school. I’m never going to see my friends again. So I think we need to be cognizant of how much of that they’re absorbing—and try to replace that with some things that are positive.”