Experts recommend lots of free play while kids are home because of coronavirus-related school closures. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

With schools closed in the majority of states due to the coronavirus and the length of those closures looking increasingly long, millions of parents are now finding themselves juggling full-time jobs and full-time parenting. In many districts, students are following online learning programs. In other cases, students are learning from their parents who have become unofficial teachers and launched homeschool programs. But for parents and caregivers of young children who can’t learn online, have shorter attention spans and need much more attention, the prospect of working and caring for children can seem daunting, if not impossible.

“It’s a really hard time to be a parent right now,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, who spoke as his own daughter was sitting through her first day of online learning. “I have so much empathy for what parents are going through.”

“We have this dichotomy often in our society that we have two choices, which is being on the floor playing with our young child or putting them in front of the screen. This is a really wonderful time to remind parents of all the wonderful ways that young children can…play by themselves without a screen. In fact, it’s really important that they do.”

Here’s a look at some research and advice from experts that may help parents navigate the next few weeks (or longer) with their young children.

What should I do at home with my young children?

The priority is to help children feel safe and “not absorb all the anxiety that we’re feeling,” Golin said. And while many parents are trying to find resources to homeschool, Golin said it’s important for parents to take pressure off themselves to provide a “traditional academic” experience for young children. In fact, it’s OK—and even good— to just let kids play by themselves. Golin said the first few days at home are important because you can set up a routine that is not centered around screens. “We have this dichotomy often in our society that we have two choices, which is being on the floor playing with our young child or putting them in front of the screen,” Golin said. “This is a really wonderful time to remind parents of all the wonderful ways that young children can…play by themselves without a screen. In fact, it’s really important that they do.”

One of the biggest concerns for young children during this time is figuring out a way to “replace interaction” that typically happens in preschool settings, Golin said. He suggested that parents take turns reading books aloud for groups of children via video or a conferencing platform, and that parents focus on giving kids experiences, rather than structured academic lessons, since that’s how they learn best at this age.

Susan Friedman, the senior director of publishing and professional learning at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, underscored the importance of a well-rounded experience while children are out of school. “Are children exercising their bodies? Are they making art? Are they playing? Are they having conversation?” Friedman asked in an e-mail interview. “Those are important questions to ask right along with what kind of screen time.”

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When it comes to providing activities and experiences for kids, it can be overwhelming to wade through the endless ideas available online. Several school districts, including the New York City Department of Education, have compiled activities and resources for children organized by grade level, including early childhood. Many museums offer virtual tours. NAEYC has ideas for parents who want to create “centers” in their homes like those found in most preschool classrooms. Most importantly, however parents choose to structure their time, research shows kids thrive on routines, and the experts I spoke to said regardless of how parents fill their child’s time at home, they should aim to maintain a predictable schedule each day.

Is it bad if my kid is getting exponentially more screen time now?

Individual circumstances are going to vary, so if your child will be using a screen for a large part of the day, Golin said it’s important to remember best practices for choosing media content for young children. The most important things, Golin said, are that the content be age-appropriate, that it isn’t an “all day thing,” and that the media you show has clear beginning and ending points. “That is going to be better for kids than You Tube, for instance, which never ends,” Golin said. Some experts say media use should be limited to educational content, especially for young children (one study specifically cautioned against using anything but PBS content). Friedman pointed to NAEYC’s position statement on technology and media in early childhood and suggested parents scrutinize the quality of content. “The quality of what children watch on screens is more important than how much they watch,” Friedman wrote. Beyond watching content, a video chat can be a great way for kids to stay in touch with friends and relatives and give kids a chance to socialize. You may even be able to enlist Grandma to hold a daily story time or switch off with other parents to host a virtual circle time. Vincent Costanza, the chief academic officer for Teaching Strategies, which focuses on early ed curriculum, assessment and professional development, said parents often hear mixed messages about technology and there are times when technology can enhance relationships. “Setting up those kinds of experiences where technology is used to connect with others are certainly appropriate and should be leveraged at this time,” said Costanza. And when it comes to tablets and apps, parents should have clear expectations for what their child will take away from that screen time. Research shows that children under the age of 3 are less likely to learn from screens, so while giving your child a tablet may feel like you’re giving them an educational activity, it’s more entertainment than anything else in the early years.

What about those controversial online preschool programs?

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For years, early education experts have cautioned parents about online preschool programs. Preschool programs are no replacement for the important in-person interactions that we know benefit the growing brains of young children. But what if your child’s preschool is closed? “You probably don’t need to sign up for one of those programs,” said Golin, adding that an immense amount of content for young children is already available without subscribing to an online preschool program. Plus, Golin reiterated, parents should not be concerned with trying to fill their children’s day with academic content. “I’d rather have kids watching old episodes of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood than worrying about if this is going to be the right [online] kindergarten readiness program,” he said.

If I’m going to use online resources, how do I tell if they’re good?

If you’re like me, you may have seen lists of 30 or more websites and online learning sites floating around the online parenting world, including on Facebook and in e-mail listservs. It can be overwhelming, and difficult to know which websites are quality. Golin said this is where parents can be helpful to each other. Instead of blindly sharing those lists, recommend a program your kid has enjoyed and share why they’ve enjoyed it. Also, caution parents about any part of that website that isn’t so great. Friedman recommended several resources, including The Kennedy Center’s daily lunch doodle with children’s book author Mo Willems and the PBS Kids Play and Learn Science app which provides ideas for hands-on, non-screen science projects. NAEYC has advice online for parents on how to choose technology for young children and Common Sense Media is also a good resource for parents to determine which websites, movies and books are age-appropriate.

What can early childhood classrooms and schools do during this time?

I was heartened last weekend by a story I heard about Dandelion Montessori, a small private Montessori school in Somerville, Massachusetts. When the local school district announced it would be closing, Heads of School Micki Sausen and Lindy McGrail Younis came up with a plan to provide support to parents and give their young students – who range from nearly 3 years old to 6 – a semblance of normalcy. Sausen and Younis spent hours collecting school materials and packing individual bags of activities for each of their 26 students. Each bag is different and includes activities and materials like Play-Doh, beads, puzzles, snap pea seeds and art supplies, tailored to what each student was working on before school closed. Bags were either handed out to parents outside the school or delivered to parents at their homes. The school’s teachers, known as guides in the Montessori world, will also do daily video check-ins with each student and their parents while school is closed, to sing songs, read a book and answer any questions about school materials that were sent home. “In this time of uncertainty, it’s just sort of supporting families and letting them know ‘You’ve got this, you can do this, it’s going to be OK and we’re here for you,’ ” Younis said. School officials are also considering hosting virtual play-dates if the closures continue.

Vincent Costanza said one of the best things a preschool program or school district can do at this time is to send home model schedules with recommendations for parents on how to replicate their child’s day in the classroom. Costanza said it’s also important for programs and districts to communicate with their families at this time, especially to relay information on where parents can access meals and other essentials if they are in need. “This is an event that’s changing at least daily, if not much more quickly than that. Having an established communication structure in place I think is very important.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about what to do with kids during coronavirus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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