Last week we hit THAT stage. You know, the one where the kids no longer think the whole "emergency remote learning" thing is fun any more, cookies have been baked, muffins have been baked, rocks have been painted, books have been read, yada yada yada and every afternoon starts and ends with "I'm sooooooo bored.". Yeah, that one.
Not gonna lie, at first those words were like nails on a chalkboard. "What do you mean you're bored?! You have schoolwork to do and toys to play with and grandparents to call, and and and!" In between Zoom calls and emails, I was not really in the mood to find them things to do (and out came grouchy mama, who, let's be honest, no one really likes).
But then, I sat with it a bit and realized that this was exactly where I wanted my kids to be. Bored out of their trees.
Yes, it was totally annoying at first and yes, it made for some tense discussions ("No, I do not know what you should do right now, just like I didn't know 10 minutes ago!") but once my kids realized that they were on their own, they began to get creative. They spent hours up a tree in the backyard, hauling up notebooks & snacks so they could design the tree house of their dreams (also, I'm pretty sure they were spying on the neighbours). They built Lego and made up stories and discovered stop motion animation. They built forts in the front yard and made up dance routines and re-read books and learned about science on Wonders with Charlie. In short, they got creative.
Research tells us that there are benefits to boredom. Among other things, it has been shown to spark creativity, develop problem-solving skills and enhance interpersonal skills. Coincidentally (or not?) these skills are what make up the so-called "soft skills" or "21st century skills" that schools are embracing and employers are demanding. By letting my kids be bored, I am literally preparing them for the future.
Let me repeat that - By letting my kids be bored, I'm giving them the very skills they need to be successful as adults.
In our hyper-scheduled, tech-filled lives there isn't a lot of space for boredom. We bounce from activity to activity, pulling out our phones any time we have to wait for even the slightest amount of time. Rarely do we just sit and stare off in to space, rarely do we have lazy Sunday afternoons where the kids roam the backyard while we pull weeds. Paradoxically, our attachment to technology is actually making us more prone to boredom, as we never give ourselves the chance to actually practice being bored (who knew it took practice?). By never letting our kids (or ourselves) be bored, we are preventing them from developing the skills that they need to be successful as they get older.
Boredom has also been shown to improve mental health, which is undeniably important in this day and age. Although it can seem uncomfortable at first, boredom allows our brains (and our children's brains) to process thoughts and feelings, instead of pushing them away by mindlessly scrolling our social feeds. It allows our kids to work through social challenges by encouraging them to seek out other kids and negotiate the terms of reference for play. And it gives us all a chance to rest and recharge by being alone.
So the next time your kid says "I'm bored", don't hand them your phone. Respond like we do in our house - "I'm sure you'll figure something out" or, my husband's personal favourite, "There are dishes to be done and toilets to be cleaned" (the kids disappear faster than you can say go with this one). Give them the opportunity to rattle around the house and the yard, picking things up and putting them down, bouncing from one activity to the next before they finally settle on something (and not the TV). Feel good about the fact that you are actually helping your kids by not entertaining them every minute of every day.
Because maybe we need to focus on letting kids be bored more than we need to "teach" them 21st century skills. Maybe our goal as parents in this time should be giving our children the gift of boredom so that they naturally develop the skills we have been relying on the schools to teach. Maybe the kids who are allowed to be bored through this will actually come out ahead, curious, creative and ready to take on the world.
Last week we fell off the bandwagon. The kids slept in later and later, my husband and I went to bed later and later, lunch was a maybe, dinner wasn't happening until 7 or 8pm...and we felt it. We were all out of sorts, not sure what to do with ourselves (even though there was lots to be done) and getting on each other's nerves because of it. So this week, we are pulling our socks up; we are dialing the routine back in so that we can be out best selves.
Now my kids haven't hit their teen years (yet) but I teach teens and I know that there is a lot of sleeping in going on these days. And while there's nothing wrong with a good sleep in, not having a routine is hard on the human brain. You see, we're wired for patterns - our brains seek out patterns (and connection!) all the time. When you remove familiar patterns, the brain isn't quite sure what to do and it gets discombobulated (I love that word). And, friends? Discombobulated brains are grumpy brains. Ugh. No one wants a grumpy teen (or tween, or husband, or toddler, really).
I created the graphic above to help you help your tween or teen add some routine in to their days. You might want to start by getting their butts out of bed a bit earlier, then feed them a healthy breakfast, before helping them set up their list of Need To Dos and Want to Dos for the day. I like this structure because it's basically a grown-up version of a "First...Then...Next" - first, I do something that I NEED to do, then I do something I WANT to do, next, back to another NEED to do. This helps teens learn healthy, productive work habits that will serve them well as they grow older and it provides a sense of control for those kids that are prone to anxiety. If you have a child who struggles with executive functioning skills (attention, focus, organization, planning), you may need to use a First-Then-Next structure or you may need to help them lay their day out in time blocks to be sure everything gets done.
I was up nice and early this morning and I can tell you that I already feel better - more energized and ready to face the day, rather than sluggish and searching for caffeine. My kids will be up shortly and we'll lay out our days together, building in time for work and time for play. Now that's a routine I can get behind!
This is Part 2 of a series about trying to figure out the whole work-from-home-learn-from-home conundrum that many families currently find themselves in. For Part 1, click here.
I get it. This whole work-from-home-learn-from-home thing is tough. I am currently trying to balance teaching from home while my two kids navigate online schooling. My husband is still working outside of the house, although he does work from home on occasion. Neither kid is particularly thrilled with the options they are being given online and both are spending significantly more time on devices than they have before. One kid gets pretty anxious if she doesn't know exactly what is required of her, while the other needs her learning embedded in play or she won't touch it. We have had meltdowns and outright refusal. Both kids have successfully submitted a few assignments, with some cajoling on our part. Thankfully, both of their teachers are very understanding and have given us the freedom to do what we like and leave the rest. Still, it's been a long week.
In my previous post, I talked about the mindset we need to have going in to this situation. I fully recognize, though, that mindset often isn't enough. Sometimes we just need someone to tell us what to do and how to do it.
That, my friends, is this post.
Below, I have 4 different examples of how you can set your children up to be independently learning throughout the day, every day. They are appropriate for a wide variety of ages, learning styles and home situations. Feel free to mix and match and add your own flair. Find a style & rhythm that works for your family and go for it!
My friend and fellow teacher created this fantastic system of choice for her son using coloured popsicle sticks and an empty picture frame. He chooses 1 popsicle stick in each category every day, plus "I-time", which are all independent activities so mama can work (cause, you know, work-from-home-learn-from-home applies to teachers too). I love that she has created a schedule for the day that isn't dialled in to the minute but rather moves fluidly around all-important meal times. Keeping meals and sleep schedules routine right now is so important for kids! Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate her kid-level command corner? So easy for her boy to feel ownership over his activities when the choice is at his level!
Next up, I was contacted by a literacy helping teacher from Delta school district here in BC asking if they could modify my work to hand out to parents. I just love what they have done with it and hope that parents & teachers in their school district find it useful. I am literate, I am numerate, I am curious and I am kind, indeed.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't share what we have done in my own household. I have two very different personalities for kids; one is absolutely a planner who likes to have a schedule to follow, the other is more of a free-spirit who wants to go where the winds take her (that and stay in her pyjamas every day, all day). The oldest has created a printable schedule for this week based on what her teacher has sent her, although she moved away from the strict times she had set for herself the week before. 5 things to complete a day, including outdoor time and free time.
For the older kids, I created a graphic with some tips on setting up your learning space and creating a routine that works for tweens and teens. You can download that here.
The youngest wanted the freedom to put together a different plan each day so we created this fun magnet board (based on this post from Craftaholics Anonymous). We spray painted a cookie sheet white but that was deemed boring so she added her own flair with acrylic paint. A little bit of washi tape divvied up the board in to To Do & Done.
The day's to-dos move over to the done side as she completes them, with no requirements for when they happen or in what order. The key to this plan is that my kiddo is in control of what her day looks like, from choosing which activities to do to when to do them. She chooses at breakfast each morning and then I check in with her throughout the day to see how she's doing on accomplishing her goals. We briefly discuss what each one is going to look like for that day ("What are you planning to read today?" "What is science going to look like? An explosion - oh...maybe you should save that for tomorrow when I can help you." etc.) but we stay flexible in case anything comes up during the day.
She gets to move forward one space on the "game board" at the bottom for every activity she completes for the day (I don't actually care if she gets one in each category tbh but if I don't put a bit of pressure on she will literally read all day. All. Day.). Since this one is motivated by incentives, we also put together a pompom jar; every time her mover makes it to the star (i.e. she completes all her activities for the day) she gets to put a pompom in the jar. When the jar is full, she gets a reward.
Here's a close up of some of the tokens. They are colour-coded to match the Literate, Numerate, Curious & Kind graphic that I created (download a copy here), with the addition of some free time and chores. We laminated them and the little one hot glued magnets on the back. Click on the download button below to grab an editable copy of the tokens & reward "game" board.
I highly recommend sitting down with your child and coming up with 2-5 activities per category that you know a) they can do independently, b) make sense in your household (no hogging the only iPad!) and c) are interesting to them. This doesn't really take long and practically guarantees a higher level of independence and interest when it comes to choosing and actually doing the day's activities. See "Learning At Home" for activities, tips and links to keep your child busy learning all day and have them choose with you!
Remember, these options are here to help you frame your child's day, not recreate a school environment. They provide a structure that is manageable for working parents; allowing your child to have voice and choice in what they do and when they do it gives you the freedom to work around Zoom meetings, phone calls or urgent emails. Empowering your kids with a sense of independence and control goes a long way to making them motivated to accomplish the day's learning goals. I can't promise that every day will be sunshine and roses with one of these systems, but my hope is that you find some ease and flow to your days and that you are better able to cope with, and maybe even enjoy, working and learning from home.
See Part 1 of this post - all about shifting your mindset as your family works and learns from home - here.
You guys. I have been completely overwhelmed by the response to my graphic support for whatever we are calling this work-from-home-learn-from-home hybrid. And what we're calling it is, apparently, a pretty big sticking point for many people. Stickler for language that I am, I get it. Labelling it homeschooling puts pressure on parents who are already feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped. Calling it distance learning puts pressure on teachers who are already feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped. Nobody wants to feel added pressure right now, especially not people feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped (seeing a pattern, yet?).
Over the last couple of weeks I've heard from lots of parents and seen several rants on social media about the amount of school work being offered/required; some saying it's way too much and stressing their families out and others begging for more in order to keep their children occupied with something other than Netflix while they try to put in an 8-hour work day. Sometimes these two perspectives are referring to the same teacher and the same class!
I get both sides. It's incredibly hard to work when a child is interrupting you every 5 minutes because they are bored; it's just as hard to see your kid becoming more and more anxious as the amount of work they are being asked to do overwhelms them. And none of us wants our kids watching 8 hours of Netflix a day. As a teacher, navigating these differences is incredibly difficult, since they are two very different ends of a spectrum.
What's a parent to do?
1. Don't try to replicate the curriculum. As much as we would like to believe that learning is this clear, linear set of steps to follow, it isn't. Curriculum differs province to province and state to state, with the same topics being taught at different grade levels depending on where you are. Getting mired in trying to figure out what exactly your child should be learning is an exercise in frustration. Do yourself a favor and just go buy one of those big books of curriculum activities that they sell at Costco; it will be close enough and way less frustrating (except, maybe if you have to wait in line. I've heard the lines at Costco are insane). Alternatively, let your intuition be your guide and get curious alongside your child; grab the "teachable moments" and ask questions that guide your child to deeper understandings.
2. Get comfortable with more technology use than usual. This doesn't mean being ok with hour after hour of Netflix or video games. It means that in the absence of an available adult to teach your child, they are going to have to get their learning from a device (or free play, that's always a good teacher). My kids spent a couple of hours straight on their devices yesterday while I was in a Zoom meeting; ordinarily, 2 hours of screen time would send me in to fits. Yesterday, though? I was ok with it, partially because one kid was learning German on Duolingo and the other was playing a math game called Prodigy, partially because it bought me the time I needed.
3. Find a rhythm that works for your family. Learning doesn't have to happen from 8:30 to 2:30. My kids have been good for a couple of hours of learning in the morning and then they fade. We usually try to get some fresh air together at lunch (a quick walk around the neighbourhood) and then they do their own thing in the afternoon. This might be playing, crafting, reading, watching a show or whatever else their little hearts desire as long as I don't have to supervise. Then, around 4 or 5, they find a second wind and finish off another hour of learning, often with dad home to help.
4. Offer lots of voice & choice. People are more likely to engage in something when they feel like they have had a say in the matter. Allow your kids to guide what and how they are learning right now, within a framework that you establish (may I suggest the graphic above as a guide?). See Part 2 of this post for examples of how to successfully set up a learning routine in your house so that it includes voice & choice.
5. Roll with the punches. Every classroom teacher knows that there are some days where you just push pause on the day's learning plan and head outside for an extra recess (that or risk losing your mind while the kids climb the walls). Take a page out of their book and allow some days to be more relaxed than others. Got a big meeting you need to focus on? Let the kids watch a show. Having trouble getting the little one out of her pyjamas? Hey, schools have pyjama day theme days don't they? Remember, routine is important but so is flexibility.
6. Let go of your notion of "school". As a teacher, I cannot tell you how hopeful I am that we come out of this with the understanding that school today should not be the school of yesterday. We have a real opportunity in this moment to see that learning - real, meaningful learning - happens all the time, in a myriad of different ways not bound by curriculum or led by teachers.
What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent - in the broadest and best sense, intelligent - is not having access to more and more learning places, resources and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill and judgment, and that makes an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them. - John Holt
School is not going to be school right now. It's going to be free play and reading books and drawing pictures and baking cakes and watching birds fly and wondering where they go. It's going to be educational TV shows and not-so educational TV shows and Facetime with gramma and making collections and building Lego and cleaning up Lego and maybe doing that worksheet that the teacher sent because she's finally bored enough to try it. All of this is learning; good, solid, quality learning.
In the end, try to remember that everyone (literally, in the entire world) is in the same boat. When life returns to normal and the kids are back at school, it will be impossible to tell who spent 3 months working through the curriculum that their teacher placed online and who spent those same 3 months reading books, playing games and exploring their interests. Do what you need to do to keep yourself and your kids sane. Try to get some learning in every day but don't sweat it.
Still not quite sure how to structure learning in your house right now? Want more of a plan? Check out Part 2 of this post for examples of how you can put together a system for learning that will keep your kids occupied and loving learning.
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!