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.
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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.”