Family Engagement

Why Learning at Home Should Be More Self-Directed—and Less Structured

On March 18, 2020, Simone Kern tweeted that simply “recreating schools at home” passes up a golden opportunity to engage kids in authentic, self-directed learning.

March 24, 2020
Gregg Vignal / Alamy Stock Photo

With students at home because of the coronavirus threat, social media feeds filled up with color-coded learning schedules from well-meaning parents. But they’ve struggled to implement those schedules—partly because the tightly structured, time-in-seat approach of traditional schools often has more to do with crowd control than optimizing learning.

The sudden shift to work-from-home might provide a good kind of disruption, opening up a golden opportunity for students to engage in authentic, deep learning that is more self-directed, more playful, more aligned with young students’ development—and much easier for parents to manage than stacks of worksheets.

Giving students some choice over their learning builds intrinsic motivation, independence, and creativity. They can investigate real-world problems that interest them, research solutions, or build models or write reports that empower them. While it can be difficult in a traditional classroom of 20–30 students, at home parents can allow their children much more flexibility to choose topics to study, books to read, and ways to use their time.

Freed from the strict curricular requirements of most schools—which focus far too much on testing and standards—parents can allow time for deep exploration, building critical thinking skills and at least as critically a real desire to learn that will transfer to related topics of study.

Exploring Science

For young kids, play is scientific discovery. Throwing toys, squeezing a sponge, or spinning in circles teaches physics lessons. Promote free play with open-ended toys like blocks, scarves, blanket forts, and cardboard boxes. Set up a science experiment with household objects. Older students can take the lead on executing the experiment and then writing up their findings in a lab report.

Nature is a pathway to scientific exploration. Students can spend time in a backyard or park and talk about what they see: water cycles, ecosystems, and food chains. Collect wildflowers and research their names. Start a birdwatching journal or a garden.  

Understanding Social Studies

Find books about history or cultures your kids want to research. Many local libraries have made digital catalogues free during the crisis. After kids complete the reading, challenge them to create a puppet show, poster, or picture book summarizing what they’ve learned. 

The technique can also be used for movies or shows. Model inquiry and even skepticism, which are crucial to developing critical thinking skills. Watch historical or international movies with your kids and talk while you watch. Ask what they think about what’s going on, point out historical inaccuracies or biases, and notice similarities and differences between the culture in the film and your own.

Mastering Math

In math, like other subjects, keep it simple. Young children can practice counting or age-appropriate math facts with real objects like buttons or coins. Cooking is another great way to teach real-world math. Internalizing what one and a half cups of flour looks like lays the foundation for learning fractions. Practice multiplication and division by halving or doubling a recipe. Board games offer another opportunity to practice math by counting money or moving a particular number of spaces.

Learning English Language Arts

Encourage kids to read by allowing them to choose their books. Making reading social is more effective than mandating a particular quantity of reading, so consider holding some time sacred to read as a family and then talk about what you’ve read. Simply talking to your kids—about anything— is beneficial. It is how we’re hardwired to learn language.

Consolidating learning—the act of reviewing information to reinforce concepts so that they stick for the long term—doesn’t need to be complex. Discussing what you do each day can help reinforce new knowledge.

If your child is at least 3 years old, try some early reading instruction with Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. Everything the teacher needs to say or do is written out in this scripted curriculum of 15-minute daily lessons, so it’s perfect for busy parents.

Writing is another basic technique for improving English comprehension. Challenge older kids to write their own picture book or short stories. The National Novel Writing Month’s Camp for Young Writers in April sets benchmarks for students to write their own novel. Teaching handwriting in different media keeps young kids engaged—try using markers, crayons, or paint, or tracing letters in trays of sand or rice.

Embracing the Arts

Visual arts enhance brain function and well-being, and music improves memory and verbal intelligence. All the arts promote motor skill development, creativity, and problem-solving. Encourage kids to paint, draw, sculpt with homemade play dough, or do fiber crafts like making friendship bracelets. The materials don’t need to be complex—basics like glue sticks, paper, scissors, and cardboard boxes can be enough. 

Music is another key area for exploring the arts at home. Kids can learn new songs or make up their own, or turn a household object like an old can into a musical instrument. Share your favorite albums for a music history lesson. For kids who play instruments, print out sheet music for favorite pop songs, video games, and animes, or offer choice by letting them pick a classical piece to learn from more than150,000 pieces in the public domain. If you have a dusty, old instrument in a closet, start a family band. Ask kids to explore the dramatic arts by planning and performing a puppet show, play, or dance. 

Finding Time for Play and Movement

As long as screens are off, very young kids will be active, but older children who are used to “sit and get” schooling might need some encouragement. Try a morning family workout to kick-start your metabolism and get those happy brain chemicals flowing. Children can meet up with friends to work out together through video conferencing. Provide choice by letting each family member pick from free workouts online in yoga, dance, or martial arts. Eventually, let kids lead the family in their own workout routine.

Learning Life Skills

With people in the home more, there’s more cooking and cleaning to be done. Doing chores develops problem-solving skills, gross and fine motor skills, and work ethic. Make chores fun for little ones by imaginative storytelling. “We’re pirates and these toys are treasures—who can get the most treasure back in the treasure chest?” or “A giant is coming who hates dirty floors. If we don’t mop this up before he gets here, he’ll eat us up!” Older kids are often motivated to do chores if you involve them in the process. Hold a family meeting to list out all the chores that must be done daily and brainstorm how you’ll tackle them together. 

See the Opportunities

Don’t feel compelled to do every subject every day. Kids may spend a whole day doing one or two activities. Authentic learning takes place within real-world, meaningful contexts. As long as kids are moving, creating, or playing, they’re learning. Let curiosity and fun be your guides.

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  • Family Engagement
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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