Keeping kids engaged during time away from school

Published: March 25, 2020
Updated: April 05, 2020
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With schools closed during the COVID-19 outbreak and distance learning now the norm—at least temporarily—educators are having to get creative in how they provide learning opportunities. Parents are partners as they develop new norms in helping students stay engaged with learning. Faculty in the College of Education, including Victoria Cardullo, Martina McGhee, Megan Burton, Sara Demoiny and Octavia Tripp, discuss re-imagining “student engagement of learning.”

What is the recommended amount of time children should engage in learning each day?

Every situation will be different as everyone is dealing with many unknown factors. Engagement will look a little different in each household; for one, it might take place in the early morning for others late afternoon, whereas yet for others, it might be 20 minutes here or there. Trying to force a rigid timetable and schedule will not work because we are no longer working within the norms, and parents will be balancing work, childcare, teaching and potentially caring for family members.  Engagement is the key, and this will look different than it might in a traditional school. A non-rigid schedule will help guide and develop learning; the key is to be flexible; this means the television is off, set a place for learning and focus on some academics in small increments.  Overwhelming them with all the content at once will not help the child. Learning occurs in many ways. Taking advantage of informal learning situations during walks outside, letters to family members, cooking, playing board games, etc., is one of the most useful things parents can do for elementary-age children. We feel the most critical aspect is to remember everyone is in the same boat, and they will be okay. As soon as students return to the classroom, teachers will meet students where they are; this is what we, as educators, do. If a child wants to explore learning, encourage it, but if you are fighting or arguing about a rigid time frame, realize it is not working. 

How do you keep them engaged in learning in a non-school atmosphere?

There has to be a re-imagining of what “engaged in learning” looks like. Learning can happen everywhere, but I imagine that you are connecting this to formal/traditional schools like learning. Parents should not expect themselves to be able to replicate what they think happens in the classroom daily.

When children encounter new situations, it is essential to have open conversations together.

Many children are dealing with the same grownup anxieties we are all dealing with. During the current pandemic, a historic event most have never experienced, it is crucial to discuss with children what is happening. Although we do not want to scare children, there are developmentally appropriate ways to engage in dialogue about the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are two resources that may help families begin to have these conversations:

In the midst of uncertainty, it is important to be honest while also focusing on the steps we all can take to stay as safe and healthy as possible. If you are stressed, they will perceive your stress, remember they are just children dealing with adult issues. Schedules are important in times like these, but it is also critical to allow flexibility when students need it. Finding ways to connect content to their current lives is one way to keep them engaged. Informal learning opportunities, such as the ones mentioned above, can be engaging. Also, encouraging movement with learning can be helpful. If your living space permits, define a specific place for the child(ren) to learn.

Are there certain subjects that are more important than others (to avoid the “summer slide” and keep skills sharp)?

No. There is a lot of research about the regression of learning that takes place during extended periods away from school. Although this research focuses mainly on reading, it is important to help students recognize how all the core content areas are interrelated.  As students read a book or write a story, ask questions to help them make connections to science, math, and social studies.  Some studies suggest the “summer slide” occurs more in mathematics than reading. As students experience the world around them, parents can help them find the science, social studies, literacy and mathematics within their experiences. Around the house, children can explore shapes, forces in motion, angles, mapping and other elements that transfer back to the classroom.

With so many great online resources available, how much screen time is too much?

This depends on the students’ age and individual needs. However, realize these online resources cannot replace the learning that occurs from personal interactions and real-world activities. Also, realize when selecting online resources that there is a difference between active learning and watching videos.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the recommended guidelines for screen time for children ages six and older should be limited by time and device type.

How should parents balance school work with fun activities and family time, and how do we keep them exercising while we are staying at home?

Everyone is learning to “balance” our work with meeting our basic necessities and emotionally processing living amid a pandemic health crisis; therefore, we need to recognize that a highly structured, typical schedule is not possible.   Consideration for the families’ resources (time, technology, space, etc.) defines what this needs to look like for each family. We encourage families to be on a constant “scavenger hunt” for how they see social studies, science, math and reading/language arts in everyday life.  One of the most important things that parents can try and do is to maintain a non-rigid schedule. One can use a calendar app with times set to focus on assigned school work and fun activities. Students love technology and using the schedule app as a game not only prepares them to engage in school work and fun activities, but keeps them consistent with their work. Using calming activities for children can support balance. When working with children, make sure you are clear about how long the activity will last. You can give them a visual planner. Allow them to plan their day.  Try to alternate between non-preferred and preferred activities so that the children see that there are positive things to look forward to throughout the day.

Media Contact

To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Mike Clardy, at clardch@auburn.edu.