Creating Reflective Opportunities to Support the Transition during #COVID-19

Motivation to engage in school work may just be at an all-time low as public places slowly begin to reopen, the sun shines a bit brighter, and the end of distance learning for the 2019-2020 draws near. Children may be excited about the freedom of summer ahead. Parents may be eager and ready to shed the pressures of supporting school assignments each day at home. It’s tempting to race blindly forward without looking back. 

Our strange loss of a sense of time during stay-at-home education comes from the lack of daily transitions that move our bodies and minds from home to work or school and back home again. We are coming up on a similar moment where there will be a major life transition yet without a change in physical location or any of the celebratory events that help children and adults signify the end of another school year. And that can be disorienting for all family members. So there is a significant value in taking a moment to reflect on the growth of the past year – friendships, academic progress and newly developed interests and also, specifically how we’ve grown and changed as a family during our quarantine. 

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” 

– John Dewey, Renowned Educational Reformer and Psychologist

Your child will never experience this grade level again during a global pandemic. Children may be sad to leave their teacher, their connection to class friends and the predictability of the school-at-home routine. Despite the stress of distance learning, they may worry about the loss of the stability and consistency that the school schedule and connection provides over the summer. They may also fear the uncertainty to come including reentering public places with the danger of the corona virus still present and the unknowns of how summer might be fundamentally different from years past because of the many public restrictions and virus risks.

There are some small, simple steps you can take to ease the transition and also deepen the lessons of their year and also, the last several months through reflection. Here are a few suggestions.

Reflect on Defining Moments.

Retell the defining moments. Be sure to discuss in what ways your family was resilient and strong during stressful times. In your ________ grade year…

  • What was the most surprising thing that happened?
  • Did you make any new friends?
  • When did you feel embarrassed?
  • What made you belly laugh?
  • What were you most proud of learning?
  • How was it challenging? And what helped you get through all of the changes?

Reflect on Learning from Home.

During our COVID-19 distance learning experiment over the past couple of months…

  • Do you recall the first day or week of learning at home? What were you thinking? What were you feeling?
  • How is our family different from life before COVID-19?
  • What have you found that has been joyful or connecting during our quarantine?
  • How have we helped one another?
  • How has connecting with friends changed? Are there any new ways of connecting that you enjoy?
  • What school projects or assignments were you most proud of accomplishing?
  • What unexpected benefits came from stay-at-home education?
  • How did you deal with your fears and stresses?
  • What bigger life lessons did you learn during this time of sustained crisis?

Reflect on Big Feelings and the Opportunity of Now: Practicing Resilience.

If we tried (in the pre-COVID world) to hide the fact that we have all-consuming, intense emotions at times, then we cannot hide anymore. The seismic shifts globally and the uncertainty of a threat that lurks right outside of our door has been enough to rattle our sensibilities, every one of us. If the not-so-hidden opportunity of this moment of quarantine might be practicing and promoting resilience in times of trial, how can you take time out to seal in and ensure that learning by reflecting on it? 

No, none of us managed our big feelings throughout this process perfectly. In fact, for most of us, there was a lot of mess. But if we talk about our big feelings, accept that there’s been fear and stress, and consider how we reacted and how we might react better, we just might learn important lessons that will assist us as we move into an uncertain summer. Some specific questions to guide you in this discussion might be:

  • What have been our fears throughout COVID-19 and distance learning?
  • What have we done to acknowledge or manage them?
  • When did our fears get the best of us (or we reacted in ways we didn’t like)?
  • When were we proud of how we handled ourselves and/or worked together as a family?
  • How can we learn more about managing our fears?
  • What can we do in the future when one or more of us is feeling fearful or stressed?

Share Your Gratitude for Your Teachers.

Yes, teachers also experienced a wide range of big feelings as they had to change their mode of teaching and learning in the blink of an eye. Though parents were in the midst of scrambling ourselves to figure out how to manage our household, our work responsibilities, the dangers of COVID19, and how to support distance learning, we may have not seen the challenges teachers faced. Yet, we know they indeed endured their own set of struggles. No matter how they managed the situation, they put their time, effort and considerable worry into reaching you and educating your children. So now more than ever, it’s critical we offer our thanks. Consider creating a simple family video of your thanks to show your appreciation. Your sincere words will mean much more than a potted plant or a gift card this year.  

Talk about it a bit before getting your video rolling. You might ask your child: “What were some of your favorite activities you remember from this year? Why is your teacher so special? Do you remember a time when your teacher was especially kind?”

Go on a Digital Parade Walk or Create a Temporary Museum of Learning.

You likely have a pile, a bin or a busting-at-the-seams binder (as we do!) of school work from the past year. Before recycling or filing away, why not use the accumulated papers as evidence of learning and growth and a tangible way to reflect on that progress? Use your home as a museum. Place the school work in the order of the school year starting in the fall. Line them up across chairs, the couch and on end tables for display. I line the dining room with rope and post papers and artwork with clothespins.

Walk around as a family and talk about what you notice particularly when you note positive developments. With a little support from you, your kids may be excited to put together the museum themselves. With multiple children, use different rooms of the house and you may have a full academic museum for an evening.

Is your child’s work all online from the past months? Then do a digital parade of work and gather around the computer. Go through her assignments, comment, laugh, reflect and bask in the glow of your collective hard work as a family getting through distance learning together! 

Do the big book line-up.

It’s likely that most of the books your child read this school year are hanging around your bookshelves. Why not create a temporary display? What a sense of accomplishment to see a book sculpture with all of the stories you’ve read, learned from and enjoyed since the school year start. It may even spur conversations and reflections on your favorite characters and stories! It may also encourage further reading this summer and inspire a new stack for the coming months.

Create a time capsule.

A terrific early summer activity might be to generate a time capsule in memory of this past school year. There will likely never be another school year quite like this one! Use this free printable time capsule to help guide you. Or work with your child to find and decorate a shoe box or other container and mark with the name of the child and dates of the school year. Now ask your child to consider their older self. What if he came across this time capsule hidden in the attic years later? What items would help him remember the unique attributes of this past school year?

Celebrate learning.

Show how much your family truly values the process of learning. Celebrate together the accomplishment of a school year filled with hard work. Make a picnic in your backyard. Bake a special treat. Decorate as if it’s a holiday. Take a moment to recognize this major change.

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.”

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Happy School Year’s End to You and Your Family!

“Reread and reflect on the childhood stories that shaped you and see what they say about your life today,” was one of the instructions from an online class on clinical psychiatry my husband was been taking during the #COVID-19 Quarantine. This was an easy assignment since he had begun reading “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien with my twelve-year-old son the moment we were asked to educate at home.

Reading about the bravery required by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins to master his own fears in the cave before reaching the dragon made my husband and I pause as we considered our current situation. Dangers abound the moment we step outside of our door and into the world of the pandemic where any person may be a carrier of a disease that is rendering some injured, some recovered, and others dead. And each of us, as the world begins to reopen will need to access our own inner wisdom if we are going to face the dragon. How will we need to be brave? How we will need to consider ourselves, our family, and the greater good in making decisions about going in public and connecting with others? Leaving the shire was terrifying for Bilbo but he knew he had to do it. But how he proceeded on his dangerous journey was key. Indeed he relied on friends and wise teachers as guides along the way but there was a pivotal moment when he had to face the darkness alone. Read the full article on the TODAY Parenting Blog.

NBC Learn and the NBC Parent Toolkit have merged with TODAY Parenting so all of the past helpful resources are being relocated and all of the new articles will be on the TODAY Parenting Blog. Hope you’ll check it out!

By Guest Author Alexandra Eidens, Founder, Big Life Journal

Those who journal are in good company. Some of history’s greatest visionaries, including Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill, and Marie Curie, kept journals.

But aside from famous company, there are other important reasons for journaling. Studies show that keeping a journal reduces stress, improves focus and boosts mood. A 2005 study revealed that journaling about stressful events resulted in significantly better physical and mental health outcomes for participants.

 With benefits like these, it’s clear why encouraging your child to journal is key. Here are five more reasons to get started: 

1. Journaling supports academic skills.

In an age when most writing is done on computers, journaling provides access to benefits that only writing by hand provides.

By improving penmanship, the practice of journaling can directly impact academics. According to Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University, good handwriting can improve a classroom test score from the 50th to the 84th percentile. He also notes that “people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.”

Researchers have also found that writing by hand helps with learning shapes and letters, and may support the development of fine motor skills in young children. For older children, the skill of organizing their thoughts and ideas is developed through journaling.

Though we might assume children are given plenty of handwriting opportunities at school, this is not always the case.

Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary grade curriculum, but today that amounts to just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting curriculum publishers.

– Gwendolyn Bounds, Wall Street Journal

By journaling at home, children have access to a host of academic benefits they might not otherwise encounter.

2. Keeping a journal stimulates creativity.

When it comes to starting a journal, the options are limited only by your child’s imagination. Journals can be anything they wish–from a loose collection of thoughts or drawings to recordings with a specific purpose and format.

To generate interest, define journaling as an outlet for your child’s expression. Allow them to decorate and fill their journal with anything that appeals to them. Materials like markers, colored pencils and stickers are motivating too. 

If your children have difficulty getting started, ask what they would like to journal about. Are they fans of the outdoors? A nature journal with drawings of birds or insects might pique their interest. Avid summer explorers? They might love a summer adventures journal. 

Most importantly, remember that journals are meant to encourage expression–not perfection. If parents critique or criticize the journal’s content, creativity and motivation will almost certainly diminish.

3. Keeping a journal promotes self-exploration.

Journaling is a tool for self-discovery and exploration. When children have access to journals, the seeds for personal growth and deepening self-awareness are planted.

Many journals created for children have writing prompts, questions, and engaging illustrations. Questions that prompt self-discovery might include:

  • What makes you smile?
  • What are the qualities of a good friend?
  • What is one thing you’ve always wanted to try that you haven’t yet?
  • What does a perfect day look like for you?
  • Describe yourself in 10 words.
  • Who is your hero and why?

Prompts like these allow children to reflect on their values, hopes, and beliefs. The resulting journal entries can also provide a touchstone, showing kids who they were at the time of writing and ways in which they’ve changed or grown.

4. Journaling sharpens memory.

Not only does journaling let children record memories, it actually improves their memory. Studies show that writing in a journal benefits working (short term) memory. 

Research on expressive writing at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that by writing about an experience, the experience becomes graspable. Writing down events as they happen preserves the memory, and children can better comprehend their lives.

A life worth living is a life worth recording.

– Jim Rohn, entrepreneur

While journaling cannot change the events that happen during the day, it does afford children some choice about how to remember them. Children have the freedom of what to record, and how they’d like to revisit each event. 

5. Journaling helps address big feelings.

Many children have difficulty verbalizing their emotions. Therefore, providing other outlets for expressing feelings is key.

Journals should be a safe, judgment-free zone. Children must feel secure in order to sort through their complicated (and uncomfortable) emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment.

Before encouraging your child to journal about feelings, consider that journals are for their eyes only. Says Amanda Morin, child development writer, “If you can’t make this promise, you can’t expect your child to take on this type of journaling.”

Depending on your child’s age, a feelings journal could take different forms. A younger child might use it to identify or label their current emotion or draw a picture of how they feel. Older children could create a gratitude journal, or to reflect on an upsetting moment and view it more objectively. 

You can start by modeling journal writing yourself. When you have a difficult or challenging moment, point out that you are going to a quiet space to sit down and write. When the feelings have passed, discuss with your child how the process of journaling helped you release your feelings.

Journaling about feelings, especially for those who struggle with open communication, is a much healthier alternative to bottling them up.

Particularly during this global pandemic, we all are experiencing big feelings and may be struggling at times with how to deal with them.  A family practice of journaling can help each member name and express those emotions in a safe, healthy way. Check out the Big Life Journal to learn more about their journals with writing and drawing prompts for kids!

Guest Author Alexandra Eidens is the founder of Big Life Journal, an engaging resource to help kids develop a resilient growth mindset so they can face life’s challenges with confidence.

CPCK Note: There was an incredible synchronicity earlier this week when I was collaborating with Alexandra to publish this article and a family member reached out to me to share how much her son was enjoying working on his own Big Life Journal. Thank you, Alexandra! This is a wonderful resource for children and teens alike!

 

Free COVID-19 Time Capsule Printable – If you are interested in offering your child the opportunity to journal during the pandemic about time at home, check out this free downloadable set of pages by Natalie Long of LONG Creations.

Deepening Our Closest Relationships: Creating A Meaningful Mother’s Day

Among other important life lessons, this global pandemic is shining a light on the importance of our relationships. We may be trying to figure out how to better get-along day-to-day with our immediate household family members. And we may also be missing and longing for time and connection with family members and friends who must remain at a distance. We may also be watching our children who are experiencing less play and interaction with friends and wondering how it may be impacting their development.

Research confirms that it is the quality of our relationships and the quality of interactions that matter not the quantity. Close, satisfying relationships in which those involved can communicate in respectful ways even when disagreeing and show regular support for one another have been shown to boost immunity, reduce stress, and lower risks for a number of diseases.1 One research study showed that teens who had one close friend were happier, had a higher perception of their self-worth and lower levels of social anxiety and depression throughout their adolescence and early adult life than teens with multiple, less intimate friendships.2

What if the test of the moment is to accept that many of us have all of the social connections we need to thrive right from the comfort of our own homes if we consider quality over quantity? And what if, in this moment, we looked to one of our most vital relationships – our relationship with our mother – to understand how we can heal old wounds, reconsider and reframe small differences in the bigger picture, and really see and value who she is — not in relation to who we are — but for her spirit and context and gifts and challenges?

Whether you are trying to figure out how to celebrate your own Mother this holiday or you have a Mother in your household, how can you consider ways in which to more deeply connect with loved ones? We cannot travel to see loved ones. We can’t go out to eat together. But there are many ways in which we can meaningfully connect with those we love and celebrate the critical role that Moms play in our lives. Guiding your child with ways to make meaningful connections will help expand your child’s social awareness while offering him or her a satisfying pathway for expressing love. Perhaps the washing away of the typical trappings of this holiday strips it down to what is truly essential — the love between a Mother and her children. How can you focus on that, nurture that, and deepen that this Mother’s Day? Here are some creative ideas.

Interview or Learn Her Stories. One of the greatest gifts we can give another is to deeply listen to their feelings and thoughts and experiences with an expansive, gracious heart and an open mind. Perhaps you can work with your child to develop questions he could use to interview Mom or maybe, you ask your own Mom about tough times that she’s endured – what she felt then, how she got through it, and what she learned. Here’s a printable set of interview questions.

Draw Each Other’s Portrait. You might draw together or one could pose for the other. This could be done in person or through Zoom. Check out the one my son drew of he and I last year. This is a treasure I will keep always.

Share a book. Reading together has multiple benefits including promoting closer connection by sharing in imagining together, opening up conversations on feelings including fears, and empathizing with others. You can access numerous picture books read aloud on YouTube videos so if Mom is at a distance, it’s still possible to share a book together. My Mom, my son, and I all watched this reading of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone called “The Boy Who Lived” read by Daniel Radcliffe and have been discussing the series together. 

Create a scrapbook or a collage of family photos. Family stories are treasures that help solidify our children’s memories of important events in our lives. Our scrapbooks or collages of photographs tell the story of our family and show that we experience joy and laughter and love together. As you work on your scrapbook, share those stories and relive the best moments all the while appreciating the role that your mother played to make those important events happen.

Create an “All about Mom” Poster. Remember in kindergarten or first grade, often students create a poster entitled “All about Me” to help other students get to know them. Create a poster to show that you know and notice the special traits, interests, and passions that your Mom possesses. You might include a picture of her, any nicknames you’ve given her over the years, her favorite pets or animals, her favorites hobbies or activities and importantly, all of the descriptive words that show you notice and appreciate her.

Use the arts to guide the way in thinking about what you could create together. You might decide on a special song that describes your relationship and can be shared just between the two of you. You might write a collaborative story together that is a memory of a joyful time you shared or an imaginative adventure you create beyond our current reality.

What are your ideas for a truly connecting Mother’s Day? Whatever you do, sometimes it’s those unplanned moments, those spontaneous laughs, that are the most connecting. Our intention to really see, hear and value our mothers this holiday may be a more important and meaningful gift than anything we might be able to wrap and place a bow on. May you discover ways to deepen your close relationships. Happy Mother’s Day!

References: 

  1. Harvard Health. (2020). Strengthen Relationships for Longer, Healthier Life. Healthbeat, Harvard Medical School.
  2. Narr, R.K., Allen, J.P., Tan, J.S., & Loeb, E.L. (2017). Close Friendship Strength and Broader Peer Group Desirability as Differential Predictors of Adult Mental Health. Child Development, Aug. 21. 

New Podcast: “Be Confident Parents for Confident Kids during COVID-19”

This week, Jennifer Miller of CPCK talks with host Mike Wilson of The Making After-School Cool Podcast for an episode entitled “Be Confident Parents for Confident Kids During COVID-19.” The podcast is produced by CASE4Kids through the Harris County Department of Education in Houston, Texas. In this episode, we’ll discuss how:

  • Youth-serving institutions and school programs are changing and adapting to the conditions created by this global pandemic;
  • Parents can promote youth resiliency and social and emotional skills at home;
  • Parents can be be a role models to keep kids calm or help them manage their fear; and
  • Adults can help youth express their thoughts and feelings regarding the pandemic.

In our current context, school, after school, and out-of-school time activities are all taking place at home. Even when we begin to return to school and community settings, we’ll need to continue to limit our exposure so more time will be spent at home. That means that we – parents, educators and youth-serving professionals alike – need to consider how we can help children and teens develop the essential social and emotional skills at home that will build their fortitude and strength during tough times and beyond. Listen to this episode!

This podcast was developed as a way to increase the awareness of resources that improve quality in the after-school and out-of-school time field. Mike Wilson, Outreach Coordinator for CASE4Kids talks with field experts about best practices, the growth mindset, project-based learning, social and emotional learning, restorative practices and student engagement all with after-school providers in mind.

Thank you Mike for this opportunity to discuss such a timely and critical issue!

Setting the Tone for the At-Home Learning Day — The Morning Routine

 

Although every family will manage the major changes of staying at home and distance learning differently taking it account their own strengths, limitations, and daily accountabilities, for children and adults alike, a consistent morning routine offers many benefits. That structure can provide a sense of safety and stability for all as they begin their day. This can lower stress levels when family members have their needs taken care of each morning through a predictable routine. If children help create the routine, then power struggles are less likely to take place regularly.

In this current context, children and adults alike are tempted to sleep in late, keep their pajamas on, and not get started with the day until half of it has passed. But during the school week when our children need to get work accomplished, slow mornings can add to their challenge to motivate and work toward school goals. Your consistency in sticking with a morning routine that works for all family members will help your children cultivate an awake and ready state of mind conducive to tackling the distance learning ahead of them.

In the recent poll asking you how you most prefer to learn, you reported that short videos were helpful. Check out this short video produced by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in partnership with Jennifer Miller of CPCK on how to co-create a successful morning routine with your children. It’s never too late and you’ll feel the benefits immediately. Check it out!  

Struggling or want more? Check out the following 5 minute video short with more instructions on how to co-create your morning routine for successful learning so that there’s less nagging, less stress, and more connection and productivity!

Creating a Smooth Morning Routine

“You Said…” Survey Results and the Best CPCK Tools

From Surviving to Thriving During the #COVID19 Pandemic

We so appreciated the participation of many in our survey on how we can meet your needs at this unique time during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were an average of 76 responses to each question, four questions total. When asked, “what is causing the most unrest in your family?,” 33% said motivation to work while 21% said too many responsibilities with too little time. To the question “What are your learning condition preferences?”, 66% responded that they preferred learning supports that could be accessed anytime and on their own schedule and 30% said they preferred scheduled, weekly opportunities. The most popular ways of learning included short videos and blog articles. Of the topics that would help you the most, there were a wide range of responses with the most popular being managing screen time and also, dealing with power struggles, facilitating learning at home, creating social connections during stay-at-home isolation, how to support children through their fears and anxieties, how to deal with parents’ big feelings, and how to use this time to build social and emotional skills.

This will very much guide our agenda going forward starting with this post. Check out the top most popular tools and practical resources from Confident Parents, Confident Kids that relate to your needs for support. 

Reinventing the Family Media Agreement 

Even though you may have had media rules in the past, our lives and our relationship was screens has changed dramatically. Now for some, school comes through screens so kids are using them for learning and for entertainment. That’s why it makes sense to have a fresh family conversation about screen uses and how you will manage your time. A healthy relationship with screens means that you’ll incorporate your other priorities into your life and ensure that time outside, creative time, rest time, meal time, reading, family game time and other important moments are kept sacred while screens are put to rest. Talking about those priorities helps all family members get and stay on the same page and also creates a day and a schedule in which physical and mental health needs are considered and respected. Get the printable plan.

Disagreeing Respectfully with these Conversation Tools

In this time of close proximity when we are with our family members much more regularly, we are certain to encounter frustrations with one another and to disagree. If we have conversation tools at the ready, we’ll be able to navigate our way through those challenging conversations while keeping up relationships intimate, healthy and growing. Get the one-page printable.

Inspiring Hard Work

Yes, there’s a science behind motivation that can shed some light on how to inspire our children to work hard even during these stay-at-home, distance learning days. It’s true that relationships are the cornerstone of learning. “Research from the children’s media field suggests that technology can, indeed, facilitate meaningful connection. Joint media engagement—a relatively new concept—refers to using technology and media as a co-engagement or co-viewing tool between adults and children. Multiple studies show that a healthier way for children to interact with technology (especially screen media) is if an adult is physically or virtually present and participating in usage with the child. The positive benefits increase when the technology delivers high-quality educational content.”1 

Additionally, our expressions of confidence that our children have “got this” can help children engage in the work at hand. Check out the article entitled “Homework Attitude — Promoting Autonomy and Competence to Inspire Hard Work.” And get the printable hard work poster to hang in your school work location.

Creating a Morning Routine for Learning Success

The CASEL Cares Initiative created this short video on why a consistent morning routine is so important and how to co-create a successful plan with your family. Excerpted from the longer webinar with Jennifer Miller on promoting social and emotional learning at home. Check it out!

Setting Up for Learning Success

How do you set up your physical and psychological environment to promote the conditions for learning to take place at home? Check out the latest webinar from Jennifer Miller for the CASEL Cares Initiative to learn about more!

Dealing with Fears and Anxieties

Reading with your children can serve as a way to face fears together, talk about them, and conquer them. Check out this new podcast from Highlights for Children with Jennifer Miller and Editor-In-Chief Christine Cully on “How Reading Helps Social and Emotional Learning.” And check out this one-page printable on “Eleven Simple Tips for Parents on Helping Children Deal with Anxiety.

Dealing with our own Big Feelings

We are all having them right now. From fear to worry to frustration to anger, it seems some form of anxiety is living just under the surface and a small trigger can bring it out in a heartbeat. Because we are already on edge, we are more likely to explode with our more challenging emotions. So why not plan ahead for our responses to those big feelings so that we never do or say something we’ll regret. Do it for yourself and for your family. And remember that when you take care of your own big feelings, you’ll be modeling and teaching your children self-awareness and self-management skills at the very same time you are taking care of yourself. Bonus! Print off the Family Emotional Safety Plan.

Global Pledge of Allegiance

Finally, Jennifer Miller’s family is offering morning announcements every weekday morning through Facebook Live at 8:15 a.m. EST during the pandemic to help families begin their mornings with a positive, calm tone. In those morning announcements, we say a Global Pledge of Allegiance that honors the fact that we are in a global crisis and are collectively working toward a healthier, safer planet. Connect with this community and use the Global Pledge of Allegiance to begin your days with your family!

May you and your family find comfort and support in these tools. We’ll be certain to continue to produce practical, research-backed tools going forward so they’ll be more to come! Meanwhile, here’s to our collective health and safety.

References:

Barron, B. Et al. (2011). The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement. NY: Joan Ganz Cooney and LIFE Centers.

Learning Together About Our Planet

This #EarthDay, #COVID19 Creates an Opportunity to Explore Together

“Mom, come quickly!” E says practically jumping up and down. “There’s a bluejay in our yard!” And this scene has played out over and again but with varying creatures – bunnies, beetles, and butterflies – oh my! If you have a patch of grass outside your door, there’s an opportunity for your kids to explore nature. Take them to a park and no screens, toys, or equipment are required for discovery. In Spring and with the shelter-in-place policies in full force, it seems we are all feeling “nature-starved” and ready to get out to experience the beautiful weather.

There’s strong evidence that points to a range of benefits for children who get outside and play. In schools during the learning day, teachers have worried that taking kids outside will result in misbehaviors and a lack of control. But when they’ve tried it out, such as leading students through a park while creating field journals or tending a community garden, they found just the opposite. Students were more engaged and held greater focus on the learning taking place.

Whether in your free time or for the many of us who are homeschooling, there are significant benefits for discovering nature together including greater:

  • family connectedness;
  • cooperation skills;
  • empathy and perspective-taking skills;
  • caring;
  • sense of awe and wonder; and
  • motivation to learn.2

One study compared a group of preteens who spent five days in nature with no screen time with a demographically similar group of preteens at home who engaged in regular activities including daily screen time.That study showed that the children who spent the time in nature after only five days were more skilled at taking social cues including non-verbals and understanding each others’ emotions. That short time spent with peers in nature enhanced their abilities to connect and communicate with one another. Though we are social distancing, time in nature spent as a family can offer all of the positive benefits while deepening our intimacy and trust and relieving some of the stressors and worries we may be feeling daily.

The experience of being in nature, appreciating and discovering and learning together as a family, is an incredibly simple and yet, powerful way to spend time together. You really only need to go for a walk together outside. But sometimes, we appreciate and can use a bit more structure and inspiration. And particularly for those who are looking to build upon a science curriculum, experiential ideas as well as online resources are necessary. So in celebration of Earth Day, here are some ideas for exploration at various ages and stages.

Preschool

Discover Bugs; Play Hide and Peek!

This game involves lifting up and peeking under any and every rock you can find and explore the world of bugs that lives underneath. Preschoolers will be thrilled by the pill bugs, worms, slugs and more that are just waiting to be discovered. The nine- and ten-year-old in the photograph below still find it exciting!

Track Animals

Go on a nature walk and look in the dirt for tracks. See if you can follow and attempt to identify various paw prints you see in the mud. And be sure to leave your own!

Early Elementary

Go on a Nature Scavenger Hunt

Print off one of the many checklists on Pinterest and head to the park or a woods nearby. Some lists are fairly simple and straightforward such as, find a stick, a stone, and a ladybug. Some are more involved such as, find litter, find an animal hole, or find a group of mushrooms.

Plant a Garden

Designate a small spot in the yard to dig up and allow your child ownership over the lot. Help her line the edges with rocks to divide the space. Pick out seeds at a local garden shop and consider all of the requirements for growing – sun, soil, water? Plant, tend, weed and marvel. If you plant herbs or vegetables, incorporate the crop into family dinners and your child can feel proud to have grown what you are eating.

Create a Habitat

You may select a cardboard box or else find a small place in your yard for your child to create a habitat. Consider what animals might want to live there and what they require to be happy? Will they need a water source? What kind of food will they gather? Help your child make a habitat for a local chipmunk, ant colony or mouse.

Middle to Late Elementary

Create a Nature Journal

You’ll need a few items in order to create a nature journal. Get a blank notebook. Fill a pencil pouch with colored pencils and a glue stick. And pack your camera (or camera phone if that’s the only option) too. Now head to a natural setting. The challenge is to recreate the natural setting in your notebook by drawing, taking pictures of and writing about the different aspects of the habitat you are experiencing. Draw pinecones. Write about the smell in the air. Glue pine needles onto your pages. Imagine getting it back out in the middle of winter. Would your notebook place you right back where you are? This activity can enhance a child’s discovery and appreciation of a place while adding their own creativity to the mix.

Assemble a Nature Art Collage

Go on your nature walk together with an empty bag for collecting. Pick up natural treasures along the way such as seed pods, buckeyes, and flower petals. Then, find a suitable backdrop like cardboard or even, a wood plank. Now arrange and glue (an adult may need to help if a hot glue gun is necessary).

Go “Creeking”

As adults, we can forget or simply underestimate the incredible lure of a trickling stream. You need no instructions for kids here. Just let them go (and make sure their shoes can get muddy and wet!). Skipping rocks, looking for crayfish, and finding fossils are all on the agenda here. In my experience, we have to practically drag our child away when it’s time to leave.

Middle to High School

Identify

Check out a field guide from your local library or bookstore. Find a natural subject that most interests your son/daughter. There are guides for fossils, rocks and minerals, plants, wildflowers, birds, woodland creatures, trees and more. Now head to the park or hiking trails and see what you can identify together.

Camp

Camping as a family does not have to require major equipment or planning. In fact, you can pitch a tent in the backyard or if parks open in your area, at a nearby nature preserve and enjoy the bonding that occurs because of it. Make a bonfire and share ghost stories. Take a hike. Pick out the constellations in the night sky. Leave your electronics behind.

In addition to all of the aforementioned benefits of getting out in nature with your children, it can have the added impact of calming us down and changing to a slower, more steady pace in contrast to our daily lives. Use this Earth Day as a reminder to find simple ways to appreciate nature with your kids and enjoy the many benefits of exploration together.

Resources:

Earth Day Facts and History

National Geographic Kids

Kids can discover games, videos, different animal types, and other special topics like Native Americans, Science, Space, United States, and “Weird but True.”

San Diego Zoo

Kids can discover games, activities, videos, stories, and ways to save animals. 

Columbus Zoo Animal Guide

Search an extensive guide of animals with information about their geographic locations, their typical behaviors, and their survival status across the globe.

NASA Climate Kids

Has informational sections on weather and climate, atmosphere, water, energy, plants and animals, and big questions. There are games, activities, videos, and careers for individuals making a difference in preserving our planet’s health.

Our Planet

A website created for the Netflix documentary series by the same name in which you can explore and find videos on different parts of the Earth including jungles, forests, grasslands, coastal seas, high seas and fresh water.

Roots and Shoots

A program created by scientist and environmental activist, Jane Goodall, kids will discover ready challenges, can take a quiz to discover their passion related to how they want to contribute, learn about what other kids are doing to improve the health of the planet, and more.

RedRover Readers Program

The RedRover Readers program is a literature-based, social and emotional learning program designed to promote empathy. Educators learn how to ask specific questions and invite students into the stories. They invite children to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in the context of animal- themed books about kindness and relationships. In addition, they are have resources for people and pets impacted by #COVID19.

Jane Goodall: The Hope

A National Geographic documentary special airing on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 21, 2020 premiering at 9:00 p.m. EST, 8:00 p.m. CT

For Parent Learning:

First Person: COVID-19 is not a Silver Lining for the Planet, Says UN Environmentalist Chief

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature
by Scott Sampson

Balanced and Barefoot; How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children
By Angela J. Hanscom

More Supportive Organizations:

The Children and Nature Network

World Wildlife Foundation

Science Kids

References:

(1) Scott, G., Colquhoun, D., (2013). Changing spaces, changing relationships: The positive impact of learning out of doors. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 17(1), 47 – 53.

(2) Garst, B. A., Baughman, S., Franz, N. K, Seidel, R. W., (2013). Strengthening families: Exploring the impacts of family camp experiences on family functioning and parenting. Journal of Experiential Education, 36(1), 65-77.

(3) Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., Greenfield, P. M., (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.

Adapted and updated from the originally published content on April 20, 2017.

What Do You Need?

Though there have been pandemics in history, for the vast majority of us, this is a unique moment in our personal history in which we are required to stay home with our families for an indefinite amount of time. Our relationships with our children, with our partner, with anyone who lives in our household will be tested. In addition, many of us are charged with home-schooling our children which can range from answering an occasional question while they work virtually or teaching content and guiding a child through their entire school curriculum or not engaging with school because of a lack of time and access. All of these scenarios represent a giant shift in roles and responsibilities adding stress to parents and caregivers amidst a backdrop of health and safety concerns.

We’ve been sharing free content to support you but feel it makes sense to take a moment to pause and deeply listen to your needs. I hope you’ll respond to the following four questions. These polls should only take a minute of your time. Your input can help determine what is produced to support you while we are reorienting ourselves and our parenting in this new #COVID19 context. Please take a moment to share your feedback!

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New Podcast with Highlights! How Reading Can Help Deal with Fear and Anxiety

Use reading at home during #COVID19!

Listen in to the latest episode of our new podcast, For the Love of Reading ❤️📚 In this episode, Highlights Editor in Chief, Christine French Cully, talks with Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, and shares how books and storytelling can help kids deal with their anxiety, especially in these unprecedented times. Listen now on YouTube https://bit.ly/2XvOFgA or Apple Podcasts https://bit.ly/3cgK1ap 🎧

In researching for this podcast, we discovered many helpful read-alouds of picture books and first chapter books on YouTube that can support parents and children in discussing fears and worries. Check out these recommendations!

Picture Books

Ruby Finds A Worry by Tom Percival

YouTube Read Aloud

Ruby is a young child who develops a very small worry that slowly gets larger over time. It becomes so huge that it begins to overcrowd her happiness. At a park one day, she finds another child with a worry and discovers she’s not alone. After talking with each other about their problems, they both begin to feel better. 

Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi

YouTube Read Aloud

Jack’s Worry is about a boy who loves playing the trumpet but can’t seem to shake his nervousness at his first concert. The story is a perfect way to teach kids about anxiety or reassure them after stressful situations.

“I Can Handle It” by Laurie Wright

YouTube Read Aloud

A boy runs into a number of challenging situations and experiences emotions like frustration, disappointment, shame, and upset but he figures out multiple ways he can handle it and regain his calm and sense of control.

Don’t Be Afraid, Little Pip by Karma Wilson

YouTube Read Aloud

All of the young penguins are learning to swim but Pip is too scared to try. Instead Pip decides she will try and learn to fly. But as tries to learn to fly, she realizes that swimming and flying just might require the same kind of courage and she has it.

First Chapter Books

Dr. Brad Has Gone Mad! By Dan Gutman

YouTube Read Aloud

An elementary school counselor wants everyone to just get along and stop arguing. Now he’s decided to turn everything upside down. The boys have to play with dollls. But girls have to play with action figures. And that’s just the beginning of Dr. Brad’s weird methods!

Magic Tree House Series

Mummies In The Morning by Mary Pope Osborne

YouTube Read Aloud

Jack and Annie magically transport through the Magic Tree House to Ancient Egypt and get lost in a pyramid. They find a ghost queen inside. She asks Jack and Annie to help her find the Book of the Dead so that she can go to the afterlife.

Magic Tree House Series

The Knight at Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne

YouTube Read Aloud

Jack and Annie find a castle with a secret passage when the Magic Tree House whisks them back to the Middle Ages for another wild adventure. In the Great Hall of the castle, a feast is under way. But Jack and Annie aren’t exactly welcome guests.

Also, check out the terrific videos for kids on YouTube at Highlights for Kids!

Thank you, @HighlightsforChildren for being such an outstanding resource for parents and the children we love!

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