How To Help Your Kids Learn At Home — No, It's Not Just Worksheets & Apps Either

Holistic Child & Family Psychologist By Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., C.N.S.
Holistic Child & Family Psychologist
A unique combination of clinical psychologist, nutritionist, and special education teacher, Dr. Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., has almost 20 years of experience supporting children, young adults, and families. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health, and a Master’s in Special Education, and is trained in numerous specialty areas.
Father Reading To His Child on the Couch

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many changes into our lives, not the least of which is the closure of schools. Most parents have had their children at home for weeks now and are facing the reality of schools staying closed for at least the remainder of this school year. I've heard from many parents who feel like they are unprepared to handle the teaching responsibilities that have suddenly been forced upon them. 

How can you become an at-home teacher? You already are. 

I hear the frustration and anxiety about that, and I'd like to offer a helpful reframe by assuring parents that they have been teaching their children from the moment they were born. Sure, the kinds of daily teaching we do as parents may not be the same as the formal academic instruction children receive in school. But parents are teachers nonetheless, and are capable of supporting the continued learning and development of our children during this time when they aren't in school. 

At this point most children and teens have some type of online learning in place from their school, generally consisting of assignments on Google Classroom or Zoom meetings with a teacher a couple of days a week. Parents may still worry about their kids running out of academic activities or falling behind in their schooling. I see many parents quickly turning to "learning apps" or online worksheet generators to keep their kids busy and to fill this perceived void in their education. While I understand the motivations behind this, the reality is that these apps, worksheets, and other "traditional" school activities are not the only thing you can lean on to further your child's education—nor may they be the best way in every circumstance. 

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Yes, your kid can learn valuable lessons at home.

Believe it or not, school is not the only place children learn important information and develop cognitive skills! While they hopefully receive enriching academic instruction at school, there is the potential for them to learn many valuable skills at home. From cooking and cleaning to problem-solving and personal growth, kids can learn a ton of critical life skills outside of the classroom. 

If you're thinking that this is only possible with you spending 100% of your time as "teacher"—think again. Learning opportunities in the home environment don't have to involve constant adult attention. There can and should be times when you leave your child alone to engage in creative play, complete chores, or work on other projects without you hovering over them. With proper instructions and guidance, kids can take the lead and complete many tasks and activities independently. This allows you to focus on what you need to while knowing that they are engaged in meaningful learning endeavors. 

But won't my kids fall behind or lose skills?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that learning loss is a real phenomenon, and it happens when children aren't engaged in using skills for an extended period of time. This is why it is important to provide kids opportunities to use their reading, writing, math, and thinking skills while they are out of school. This isn't much different from the extended summer break most kids have every year. But engaging kids in meaningful activities where they can use the skills they've learned doesn't require worksheets, screen time, or other tasks we may associate with "academics."

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What kinds of learning activities can kids do instead?

This is a wonderful opportunity to help kids understand that learning happens all the time and through many different kinds of activities. In fact, some of the very best learning happens when kids aren't doing worksheets or repetitive math apps!

Here are ideas for supporting skills in the main three academic areas:

1. Math

Math is much more than just learning arithmetic and solving equations. Cooking, scheduling, doing chores, and playing games are just a few things your kids probably already do at home that involve math concepts and skills. Give kids more responsibility in these areas so they actually learn how to use math in the real-life activities they will be doing for the rest of their lives. For example, you could put them in charge of making meals. They will have to find some recipes and potentially modify them to make enough food for the family (with four teens in my house, we usually end up tripling most recipes), which requires a good deal of math. Even young children can help cook and learn about fractions, measurement, and more in the process. 

Another great activity for elementary-age kids is to have them count and roll all the loose coins that are sitting around the house or in a change jar. This is an easy and rewarding task for kids and keeps their math skills fresh. Young children can count things around the house, make patterns with toys or found objects, sort blocks by shape or color, and play simple board games. 

Teens can learn how to do things like balance bank accounts, estimate grocery costs, complete tax forms, calculate discounts, construct models, and just generally learn about financial wellness. Anything that involves time, counting, patterns, measurement, estimation, rhythm, puzzles, or building something engages kids in the process of using math concepts and skills in a meaningful way.

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2. Reading

Reading skills are constantly developed outside of the classroom. The easiest way to keep your kids sharp in this area is to encourage them to read more books! Many children already enjoy reading, so even just buying them a new novel can get them to do a lot more reading. Set a good example by taking time each day to read a book yourself, as kids model what they see parents doing. Don't underestimate the value of kids listening to you read to them. This is true for all children but especially pre-readers and elementary-age children. Reading with a parent by taking turns or just listening to the parent read provides a critical foundation for strong reading skills. It also helps develop reading comprehension skills. If you have more than one child, they can read to each other, which provides good practice and doesn't require you to be there with them. 

Aside from books, a plethora of other daily tasks involve reading. Cooking from a recipe, creating and following to-do lists, reading email and texts, following instructions for art and building projects, playing board games, and listening to podcasts or audiobooks all flex kids' reading muscles and ensure that they retain and improve their reading skills while at home. 

3. Writing

Writing is also a natural part of so many daily activities. Kids can practice and improve their writing skills by emailing family members or teachers, keeping a journal or diary, making a shopping list, writing out a menu for dinner, or creating their own scavenger hunt clues. I like to have my kids create lists of things to accomplish each day, which not only provides some structure but also keeps them writing. You can have your kids write fun stories to share, come up with new lyrics to favorite songs, or make a gratitude list to share with each other at dinner. 

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The take-away.

If you're thinking that these activities are really "basic"—that's exactly the point! It's important not to overlook options because they don't fit into the box we have in our minds for "school." We also need to remember that for children, especially young children, the most important learning activities involve playing with toys, exploring in the yard, building things, creating with paint and Play-Doh, and other developmentally appropriate activities. Young children benefit far more from these kinds of experiences than doing any type of worksheet or learning app!

Even for older children and teens, there is great learning value in allowing them to create and explore their own interests (both on- and off-screens). These kinds of tasks and activities give kids exposure and practice with things they will need to know how to do to succeed in life as they grow. Even more importantly, they help children maintain the academic skills they've developed so they can jump right back into school-based learning when school reopens. 

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