How to make the most of online education
Most children have now been out of school for months. And while the summer holidays stretch ahead, it’s still unclear what school will look like in September. Many of us have turned to digital teaching to fill the gap — but online classes are a new experience for children, parents and teachers too. If you’re new to the world of online learning, here are six tips to help your kids get the most out of online courses and activities.
1. Make space for learning
If you’re working from home at the moment, you’ve probably already heard this tip. It’s easier to concentrate when you have a clean, quiet space that is devoted to work. This helps to put you into the right mind-set.
However, it’s not always easy to find space, especially in a busy family home. So if you don’t have enough home office space to accommodate everyone, what can you do instead?
The key is to create a learning atmosphere. Experiment with different ways of signalling that this is “school time”. Some children find it easier to focus when they go through the process of putting on school uniform and arranging their school books. Others might prefer visual clues, like setting a clock for the duration of study time, or putting up a sign. In my house, my sister puts a stuffed dinosaur on guard outside her door when she wants to concentrate!
If your child is very active, or likes to learn by doing, then you can try creating a learning space with a warm-up activity. This is when you have a ritual that always signals the start of study time. You could do some deep breathing exercises together or a quick burst of jumping jacks. Younger children might enjoy a “study song” with actions.
Here’s a very simple example, and I apologise in advance because it’s a bit of an earworm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN1Cyr0ZK9M
2. Create your own schedule
Just because children go to school from nine till three, that doesn’t mean they’re sitting at their desks studying all that time. They have breaks. They travel between classrooms. They spend a truly astonishing amount of time getting out their books, sharpening pencils, looking for their coats and squabbling about where to sit.
So you should absolutely not be aiming for a solid 6 hours of learning a day. You also don’t have to stick to standard school hours. If your child is always full of beans in the morning, or likes to read in the evenings, use those natural tendencies.
I spoke to Sarah Jewitt, founder of The Imagination Shed, which offers hands-on courses and online tutoring in literature and creative writing for kids. “Find your own family schedule,” she recommends. “It’s always best to find a way to get on board with your kid, instead of making them hop on board with an arbitrary schedule.” She suggests giving children a choice about when they want to study, so that they feel empowered to learn on their own terms.
3. Mix high and low energy activities
On-screen videos and games have an amazing ability to catch, and hold, children’s attention. But one of the difficulties with online learning is that it doesn’t reflect a normal class.
Over the course of a normal lesson, teachers will try to vary the activities on offer. This is especially true for small children, who can usually concentrate for about 15 minutes before they need to change things up. Back in the classroom, their teacher wouldn’t encourage them to watch a tablet for a few hours. Instead, they’d alternate reading time with outdoor activities, hands-on projects, games and classroom discussion.
The same thing is true for older children and teenagers. Although their attention spans are a bit longer, they still need variety and a mix of high and low energy activities. So they could alternate watching video classes with taking notes, trying practical experiments or building scientific models, getting some exercise between lessons, and explaining what they’ve learnt to someone else.
If this all sounds a bit abstract, try thinking of it in terms of the five senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. Ideally, your child should use every one of those senses over the course of the day — for example, listening to an online class, using their hands for a craft activity, reading a book, and tasting or smelling a science experiment in the kitchen. Don’t worry if you don’t take in all five senses every single day; this is just to get you thinking about how to vary activities and keep your kids interested.
4. Avoid screen fatigue
Learning with all five senses is a nice idea; but, in practice, a lot of online learning depends on watching videos and attending video calls. How can you make sure your child is getting the most out of those sessions?
Video classes present several challenges. First of all, there’s no teacher in the room to call your child to attention or keep them on task. Children are also just as vulnerable as adults to “Zoom fatigue”, and they may find it difficult to sit up at a screen for long periods of time.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to help. Many children find it easier to listen for long periods if they have something to do with their hands: try giving them a Rubik’s cube, a heap of LEGO bricks, or a pencil and paper. While they are doodling or building away, their minds will still be working on the content of the lesson. Older children and teens will also benefit from this trick. If they don’t like the idea of toys, they can take notes or draw mind maps while they listen.
You can also help children by putting their classes into context. For example, if you want to work on reading skills, choose books which are relevant to the summer holidays, your child’s favourite activities or surroundings. Let them learn about science in the context of helping to cook dinner, or watching wildlife in the park. “Learning is everywhere,” says Sarah. “Children don’t separate work from play” — so every activity is an educational opportunity.
5. Keep going
Once you’ve found a schedule that works for you and your family, try to stick to it. Most young children like to have a routine or be told the plan for the day. What’s more, consistency and repetition are an important part of learning.
We’ve all met a child who likes to watch the same film over and over again, read the same story every night, or sing the same song until it drives you crazy. One reason for this is that they’re learning. Even if you’re sick of Baby Shark, rest assured that your child is getting something valuable out of it.
If you want to encourage your child to remember or use something they’ve learnt, try to encourage this kind of repetition. Ask them to draw a picture about what they’ve read, explain the lesson to you or tell you a story about it. This works for older kids and teens too: challenge them to explain a new idea to you or make an explainer video about it.
6. Take the pressure off
Finally, don’t forget that we are in the summer holidays! You and your children deserve a break. Don’t worry too much about catching up on missed schooltime: everybody’s in the same position, after all.
If you’re spending time together and enjoying lots of different activities, then your child will still be learning new skills and taking on new information. “Children are good at knowing instinctively how to learn,” explains Sarah. “Children want to learn!” So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that the kids will be all right.