We're in a moment of huge change for families. With schools closed around the country, millions of children are adapting to online learning right now—and there's a lot more screen time in our children's futures than many of us planned. But there's more to streaming education the right way than just pressing play or downloading an educational app.
Fortunately, the internet is brimming over with high-quality recorded and live media that invite children to grow, learn and interact from home.
Here's how parents can get the most out of the huge wealth of digital educational resources online:
1. Get those bodies ready before screen time starts
Kids can't learn if they're not feeling good in their bodies. After breakfast, see if you can make 10 to 20 minutes of exercise time happen before you start learning time. That might mean riding a scooter around the neighborhood or doing a family yoga video together. Then settle into a comfy place where learning can happen, whether that's the kitchen table or a desk.
2. Have a daily game plan
Your child's days in school are guided by predictable rhythms and routines. Your days at home need their own learning rhythms, too. When it comes to creating a daily learning routine, experienced homeschool families have lots to teach us.
Think about how you want to incorporate screen-based learning in your child's daily rhythm so that it's balanced with other kinds of learning.
Perhaps your family sets a goal to create four hours a day of learning, in 30 minute blocks. Give each block a name just like the school does and post it on the fridge. Some of these blocks can incorporate screen-based learning, while others can be totally offline. For a preschooler, screen-based learning time might mean including blocks like:
- Circle Time: Have a FaceTime chat with another family, where you sing a song together and share something each person is grateful for. Play a game of Roses and Thorns with other families from your child's class—parents can participate, too!
- Nature Learning: Watch a video about your favorite animals and then talk about a few things that they have in common.
Elementary school blocks might be modeled after your child's real school day with structured time for science, math, language arts and D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read!). Or, you can be more fluid, like some homeschool parents, and let the learning emerge around daily tasks like cooking (lots of math opportunities) or gardening (which incorporates both science and art).
Don't forget to leave time in between for snacks (very important!), physical breaks and of course, lunch.
3. Look for variety + interaction
There's a lot more variety in educational media than you might think. Screen-based learning can take lots of formats and it's best to vary them throughout your day. There's a hierarchy of online learning, and the stuff that's interactive or includes real world activities is definitely on a higher level than passive screen time.
How can you spot a passive video? If your child watches it without interacting in any way (aside from maybe laughing, or—less good—drooling) then that's a red flag. In general, a lot of the educational videos you'll find on YouTube are passive, although there are gems out there. Passive media isn't "evil," but it shouldn't make up more than a small part of your child's screen-based learning time.
Educators who are trained in learning media design know about building shows from curriculum and engaging young viewers effectively. Parents of 2- to 6-year-olds should beeline to Sesame Street (episodes streaming on Hulu, HBO, and PBS Kids) and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (episodes streaming on Amazon Prime and PBS Kids), both great examples of interactive educational media for kids.
In every episode of Daniel Tiger, the beloved little guy in the red hoodie frequently looks right at the viewer and asks a question that has to do with the curriculum behind the episode—and he waits a moment for the answer, because kids love to talk back to TV characters. That's not just a cute moment of dialogue—ot's a design decision by the writers and educators behind the show that makes the viewing experience more interactive, and better for learning.
Here are more types of strong educational content to look for:
Digitally interactive: Some media involves interactive back-and-forth, like solving math problems or answering quizzes where the software helps you progress. You might already know about great mobile apps such as Endless Alphabet or Elmos's ABCs that do this. Looking for more? Common Sense Media has a terrific educational media section that reviews these apps in detail.
Physically interactive: Some digital resources involve movement, making art, mindfulness practice, voice/language practice or creative writing prompts that ask you to pause the video and do something in your real space at home. YouTube has so many art, dance and music channels in any medium your heart desires, and podcasts offer storytelling and meditation. You know you've found something really special when there's a joint engagement factor—when parents and children collaborate on the work instead of just plugging the kids in to go it alone.
DIY + maker-focused: Lots of screen-based resources help you make something to use in the real world, and then take that thing outside—like a special paper airplane or a grid called a quadrat for studying the life in your backyard. Sometimes the making is all virtual, like beginner coding games featuring Anna and Elsa, or, yes, Minecraft. Try the activities with a buddy family. What if you both did the activity and then had a video call to share your work?
There's only so much energy a parent has to help out with alphabet practice and video science projects. When you are using passive video streaming as a solution, research shows that co-viewing (another type of joint media engagement) leads to much stronger outcomes for kids and their understanding of ideas. There's lots of ways to co-view:
- Pausing the video to ask a question
- Pointing things out that are interesting
- Simply being there, beside your little one.
- Siblings count! Can your older child take time out from what they're doing to watch a show together?
- What about setting up a watch party? You and another family could tune into the same programming at the same time while you're on FaceTime or Skype. Use the mute button to avoid audio feedback and take breaks to share laughs or ask each other questions.
5. Report out
When an online activity is finished, circle up with your children and find out how it went. It's important to get feedback about the day that's richer than the usual tired-preschooler response, "It was good."
Questions to ask to start a conversation:
- What was that video about? It seemed interesting but can you tell me more?
- Was there anything new you discovered?
- Would you recommend this video to your friends? What do you think so-and-so would learn from it?
- Did the video give you any feelings? Did it make you happy, frustrated, bored, excited? Tell me about why you think that happened.
- Do you want to try anything you saw in the video (singing the song, giving a hug, calling a friend)?
Based on their feedback, you can make an even better plan together for tomorrow's learning. Good luck! You've got this.