Category Archives: Parenting Skills

Young Children and Zoom

a child looking at a mobile device

I don’t think the developers at Zoom (or Skype or Microsoft Teams) ever predicted that their software would become a platform for parent-toddler classes and online preschool!

And during coronavirus, all the parents who used to try to minimize screen time for their young children now find they need to utilize it as their child’s primary way to connect to people outside their household. How do we make the experience as rich and as developmentally appropriate as we can?

These tips can be helpful whether you’re a parent planning a call between your child and their grandparent, or you’re a preschool teacher planning a class for a dozen kids.

Before the Call

Choose a good time of day when the child is relaxed and attentive.

It doesn’t have to be a long call and a big deal – it’s fine to do short calls. A few minutes here and there is great for some kids. On the other hand, it’s also fine to have long calls. I know one family in Seattle where the grandmother in China “comes for breakfast” every day (before grandma turns in for the night.) She “sits at the table” with them, and chats with the children as the parents get ready for the day.

Before the call, gather anything you’ll want to use during the call: books, instruments, and show & tell items so that no one has to step away from the computer during the call – that might cause the child to lose interest.

Prepare the child. Talk about what will happen and how long the visit will be. Remind them who they will be speaking to and what they talked about last time.

Consider staying nearby. Young children may be best able to engage with a zoom call if they’re sitting on their parent’s lap or the parent is sitting beside them. (Note, some organizations, like Outschool, require that adults be off camera, but when I teach preschool age children on Outschool, I find that the children who do best in class often have an adult right next to them – I’ll see the parent’s arm reach in to help out. Once children have done several classes, they no longer need that active support, and you may be able to step away and get things done while they’re on a call.)

Teach them to un-mute. The host can mute the child, but not all systems allow the host to un-mute, so be sure the child knows how to un-mute. There are a few choices: if you have a touch screen, the easiest may be to teach them to tap the bottom corner of the screen to bring up the command bar, then tap on the mic icon. Other options: moving the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen and clicking on the microphone (this can be hard for little ones), pressing alt-a, or holding down the space bar (note: as soon as they let go of the space bar they return to muted.)

Over time, help your child learn Zoom skills to be more independent in the call: how to mute, how to chat, how to use the reactions like clapping, how to share screen. How to place a call. Help them understand what’s happening when their screen buddy “freezes.”

During the Call

Have familiar rituals – perhaps the same greeting each time, or the same song each time – these cues help a young child to remember who they’re speaking to and reconnect.

The remote person should speak slowly and clearly. The person in the room with the child can repeat questions and comments from either side, as needed.

The remote person should look directly at the camera – this will feel like eye contact to the child. Don’t be tempted to look at other distractions while talking. Use a lot of gestures, body language, and big facial expressions – it’s much more engaging.

Stay unmuted as much as possible so everyone in the call can hear each other and feel as though they’re in the same room.

Consider using a mobile device like a tablet or laptop so you can move around and show each other new things.

Some children focus better if eating a snack while talking – for others, that is distracting. Some children focus better if they have some simple toys nearby to hold in their hands and play with during the call. Others may find that distracting.

Let the child know when the call is nearing its end, and make a clear ending. (Maybe a song, or a story, or something to signal the ending.) Talk about when you’ll “meet” again.

Making Video Chats Interactive

Here are ideas for interactive activities to try out:

  • Play Peek a Boo. Normal style, or by covering the camera and uncovering it.
  • Read Stories. If you have a physical copy of a book, you can hold it up and read it. Or you can scan in pictures of the pages and share those as you read. Or find a YouTube of a read aloud book, but mute their video, and read along with your voice.
  • Sing Songs. With audio lag you can’t sing in unison or it sounds awful. But you CAN take turns singing.
  • Silly Faces. Take turns – who can make the silliest face? (Spotlight them.)
  • Pretend to Be – Take turns pretending to be different animals, or whatever.
  • What is My Stick? Hold up a stick. Demonstrate how it could be a fishing pole, or a baseball bat. Try a few more and ask them to guess what it is.
  • Use Props. Puppet shows can be fun!
  • Make Art Together. Get out art supplies on each end, and draw pictures together. Hold them up to the camera from time to time to share your work.
  • Show and Tell – each person brings an item to show to people and to talk about.
  • Play Guessing Games.
  • Share a travelogue – each person takes pictures of their day, and shares it with the other on the next call.
  • Dance Party. Put on some music and dance!! (Learn how to make music work well on Zoom.)
  • Talent Show – Take turns demonstrating special talents you have: telling jokes, crazy dances, singing songs, patting your head and rubbing your belly…
  • Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “
  • Would you Rather? “would you rather ______ or _______”
  • I Spy: Do a google search for “I spy pictures.” Choose one, then share your screen and play I Spy together.
  • Play Simon Says.
  • Play Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and other pencil and paper games on the Zoom whiteboard.
  • Guess How Many. Person A fills a container with objects (20 pennies? 30 mini marshmallows?) and shows it to Person B. They have to guess how many objects there are, then they count them together. On the next call it’s B’s turn.
  • Scavenger Hunt. Name an object – they run and find it in the house and bring it back.
  • Find the Hidden Object. The remote adult can conspire with the in-house adult. The in-house adult hides an object before the call. During the call, the remote adult can give clues to help the child find the treasure.
  • Pretend to Share Snacks. Plan ahead and have both of you have the same food to eat together. Make it a fancy tea party if you’d like.
  • Go on a walktogether” with mobile devices. Share what you see.
  • Go on a field trip “together.” Lots of zoos, aquariums, and museums have created virtual field trips or have “panda-cams” and such. Go on one together by sharing your screen and talking about what you see. You could also do virtual tourism together. My mother-in-law has found a whole world of “virtual walking tours” on YouTube and goes for walks all over the world every day in her living room.
  • Watch movies together. Share a screen and talk as you watch.
  • For older children (elementary on up), there’s lots more ideas here:

I also like this suggestion from Zero to Three: “Be the “hands and heart” of the the person on-screen. When the screen partner “tickles” your baby’s tummy, give your child’s tummy a tickle, too. When a grandparent leans toward the screen to “kiss” your toddler, you can give him a kiss on the cheek. By taking this role, you help nurture the relationship between the child and their on-screen friend.”

Long Distance Babysitters

During the coronavirus stay-at-home time, many parents have been with their children 24/7 for a long time with few breaks. You can use a video chat as a “babysitter” to get you a break. Have your child talk with grandpa, or an aunt, or a friend while you rest. If you have a very young child, you may need to be in the same room but at least the child’s attention is captured by someone else. For older children, you may be able to be elsewhere in the house, and let your child know where to find you. I know some parents of elementary age kids who will go for a walk in the neighborhood while their child is online – the remote adult has their cell phone number and can reach them immediately if needed.

Internet Safety

This blog is primarily aimed at parents of kids age 1 to 6, so I assume the parents are nearby during video calls, and keeping their eyes and ears on what is happening. If you have an older child who may be making video calls independently to friends, here are some helpful safety tips:

Audio Quality

If the person on the other end seems to have a hard time hearing you: Figure out whether you need to add an external microphone to make your child audible (especially if they’re speaking with an older person whose hearing isn’t what it used to be). Children tend to have quiet voices and may be hard to hear over a video chat if the internal mic on your device isn’t great. Plus they wiggle around a lot and don’t always stay near the mic. You can test your mic – use the “voice recorder” app on your computer and record your child talking, then play it back. If you can hear it with your speaker volume at any setting, it’s fine. But if you can only hear the recording if you crank your speakers up to 80 or 90 out of 100, then consider buying a mic. (Click for more tips about audio settings.)


If you’re teaching classes to young children, here’s a handout you can send to the parents about help your child succeed on Zoom.

Here are some of the sources I used when writing this.

What the research tells us about developmental impacts of video chat vs. other screen time for kids:

More about managing screen time during coronavirus time:

If you need a tutorial to the basics of how to use Zoom, or any of the advanced features of Zoom, check out my Guide to Zoom.

And, to get a break from the screen: 

Encouraging Prevention

The TL; DR summary – If you are hoping to encourage those around you to take more steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus: don’t shame them, do listen with empathy to their concerns, support their efforts at risk reduction, understand that people may make different trade-offs than you would, be intentional about who you interact with, help give other people the tools to have conversations about risk reduction, and model the behavior you would like to see.

Where do we start?

As a parent and a parent educator, I talk a lot to other parents. Many are angry when they see people not wearing masks – they may think “because of people like you, my kid can’t go to school!” They may shake their heads in dismay when they see unmasked teens hanging out in close-knit huddles, inches apart, saying “if that were my kid….”. They express frustration at in-laws who talk about having a lovely time at a party with friends (unmasked) and then want the grandkids to come to their house for a visit. They read social media posts from friends who believe coronavirus is a left-wing conspiracy, and ask me: do you sometimes feel like you want to shake people and say “what the h*%$ is wrong with you?”

But let’s be honest: Do you think that scolding anyone for the choices they make will make them change their ways? No. You know that will just make them dig in their heels more. But what approaches might work to encourage more people to take more steps to prevent coronavirus spread?

We can learn a lot from previous approaches to public health messaging, and approaches to education in general.

Shaming Doesn’t Work

Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, has been doing some great writing and interviews on this subject. (In The Atlantic, Teen Vogue, and the Harvard Health Blog.) Many of the ideas in this post come from her.

She talks about what we learned from AIDS: “When you shame people as a way to try to get them to avoid risky health behaviors, it doesn’t generally make the behaviors stop — it just makes people want to hide the behaviors…” It’s hard to hide not wearing a mask, so some people may decide to have indoor parties with friends, and then later won’t disclose that to contract tracers. “So rather than shaming, what we can do is try to meet people where they are, understand what is getting in the way of them adopting the protective health behaviors that we want to support, and then try to mitigate those barriers.” (Source)

I teach about positive discipline techniques – when we’re connected to someone, how do we shape their behavior. Although shaming someone doesn’t tend to be effective in the long run, the attention principle does. Pay attention to whatever behavior (no matter how small) that you want to see more of. I have family in Kansas that worries that few people are wearing masks although they do put one on when they talk to her – just saying “I appreciate you brought your mask today” or “what a lovely mask” will do more to encourage them to wear it than saying “why aren’t you wearing it all the time?” Another idea from parenting / education that I find helpful is Ross Greene’s idea of “people do well if they can” – if they’re not doing well, what skills, tools, or support do they need to do better? This post will cover lots of those ideas.

Try Empathy

If you try to start a conversation by sharing all the information you have on why they SHOULD wear a mask, they can get defensive and push back harder. Or if they tell you about a party they went to, and you pull out your data sets, they’ll walk away.

“Instead of telling someone what to do right away, you want to explore why they’re doing it, and what is the reasoning behind their behaviors, in a very unbiased and nonjudgmental way,” says Dr. Michael Richardson. (Source)

70% of Americans believe people should wear masks. (Source) “But just like the well-intended condom on the nightstand that never makes it out of its wrapper, some masks don’t make it onto someone’s face—often for relatable reasons.” (source)

In one neighborhood in Seattle, here’s what people report about their actual behavior. Always wear a mask – 67%; Frequently – 18%, Sometimes – 9%. Rarely – 1%. Never wear a mask: 5%.

So, try asking people what their reasons are – what are their barriers?

Empathize with their experience. Listen to their concerns. Share your own frustrations, and the solutions you have found that work for you, being careful to make I statements not you commands. “I know – I hate how they fog up my glasses! I’ve had better luck with my new mask with the wire, but it is frustrating.” “I know, it’s weird to me to not see people smiling at me and not be able to smile back. I’m trying to figure out body language ways to communicate, like waving or nodding.” “I’m also so overwhelmed by the news that part of me wants to think this is a conspiracy and it can’t really be as bad as they say. But I still wear my mask, because what if I did have it and went out before symptoms developed, and someone I love gets sick because of me.” “I get so hot in the grocery store – I hurry along, reminding myself that the sooner I’m done in the store, the sooner I can get to my car and take my mask off.”

“Acknowledging what people dislike about a public-health strategy enables a connection with them rather than alienating them further. And when the barriers are understood, they become addressable.” (Source)

Risk Reduction Approach

It’s hard for all of us to abstain from social contact. It may be especially hard for young people and extroverts of all ages. Instead of demanding that they abstain from seeing their friends, maybe we need to take lessons from what we’ve learned in a comprehensive review of abstinence only sex education: “Many adolescents who intend to be abstinent fail to do so, and when abstainers do initiate intercourse, many fail to use condoms and contraception to protect themselves.”

“Comprehensive risk reduction (CRR) interventions promote behaviors that prevent or reduce the risks… These interventions may: Suggest a hierarchy of recommended behaviors that identifies abstinence as the best, or preferred method but also provides information about sexual risk reduction strategies.” (Source)

Instead of just talking about what someone can’t do, we could talk about what they can do and how to make that as safe as possible. Instead of saying “you can’t see your friends”, you start with “I get that you want to see your friends.”

Then, we can acknowledge that, from the coronavirus perspective, the safest option is just to stay home and talk on Zoom. But, if they feel they need to see people: then, talk about how to do that with less risk: such as using masks, social distancing, where to do that: meeting people outside, going for walks outdoors with someone, what to do – a bring your own picnic where you sit several feet apart; when to do it (when you’ve had minimal exposures recently) and who to do it with.

As Mark Levine, chair of the NYC Health Council, says: “If we don’t give people the information to choose low-risk activities, they will choose high-risk ones–like house parties, large gatherings in front of bars… So let’s give people the tools to understand that risk is a spectrum. * Outdoors is less risky than indoors. * Small groups are less risky than large groups. * Simply passing by someone is less risky than sustained contact.” He shared this graphic, which shows staying home with your children has the least coronavirus risk, then going out in the community, then meeting friends outside, and then playdates at a friend’s house, which you might only want to do after very careful consideration.


Vox took this idea and adapted it. Helping people understand the different levels of risk and what precautions need to be taken at each level can help them make decisions about the risk reduction methods they think they can follow reliably.

spectrum of risk


When we see teens and  young adults hanging out at the park with friends, it’s easy to think they’re foolish and careless: “Young partygoers have become the latest scapegoat for America’s pandemic woes… Risk taking typically peaks during young adulthood, when people are most responsive to the rewards of a risky choice.” However, that may not be the whole story: “The issue isn’t that young people are universally unconcerned about the pandemic; it’s that they realize it’s not the only—or even the greatest—risk they face… [young people are at] lower risk of complications from coronavirus infection than older people—but at far greater risk of psychiatric disorders that can be triggered or worsened by social isolation…” (Source)

For sake of reducing coronavirus risk, the safest thing would be for all of us to stay at home. However, many of us can’t, due to work or other requirements, or lack of a safe home environment. And there are many other reasons we might not want to stay at home. How do we balance the demands and desires to get out of the house with reducing risk of transmission?

I’ve worked with pregnant clients for over 20 years now. When I talk about healthy nutrition, avoiding substances and medications and so on, I have always tried to take the approach of offering the best information we have about what is best for a developing baby, while also acknowledging that babies are surprisingly resilient. I encourage making the healthiest choices, but also say – “if you’re making an unhealthy choice in one area, can you try extra hard in the other areas to balance it out?”

If I tell a smoker about all the evils of smoking and that they should never ever smoke, they might rebel against that – “my friends all smoke and their babies are fine!”, or they might give up – thinking – if I can’t do anything right, why try at all. Instead, I say “we know smoking is harmful, so it’s best to avoid it or reduce it as much as you can – in the meantime, here are some other healthy choices you can focus on.” And typically, they make these other healthy choices and significantly reduce their tobacco use.

We can take some of the same approaches to coronavirus. Balance the risky choices with low risk choices.

We have mostly had our son at home for 4 months now. He’s barely been in other buildings or with other kids. But, next week, he’ll go to an in-person summer camp. We’ve decided that he needs that brief respite from quarantine life at home and that brief chance to engage with other kids and build his social skills (our son is autistic, so this is especially challenging for him). But, in making that decision, we also looked at risk reduction – making sure the camp had good protocols, and at other trade-offs. This week we’ve had minimal contacts to ensure he’s healthy and not bringing something to camp that will affect others, and for ten days after camp, we will be extra careful not to expose others to him (or us) just in case he picks something up. And of course, there will be masks and lots of hand-washing.

So, different people may have different degrees of comfort with exposure risks and how they’re managing them. But each of us can be making our own decisions, and figuring out our own trade-offs.

“Instead of moralizing, harm reduction comes from a place of pragmatism and compassion. It accepts that compromises will happen— for perfectly understandable reasons—and aims to reduce any associated harms as much as possible.” (source)

It helps to have a tool for comparing risks. I really appreciate this risk index infographic from Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Dr. Saskia Popescu, and Dr. James P. Phillips, which looks at the risk of various activities, assessing based on 4 factors that increase risk of transmission: Enclosed space, longer duration of interactions, crowds, and forceful exhalation (e.g. singing, shouting, breathing fast while exercising.)

covid-19 risk index

Bubbles and Pods

Many people have chosen to “expand their bubbles” or “create a pod” where a small number of people choose to socialize exclusively with each other as a “quaranteam” without the need for physical distancing. I know of many parents of young children who have made this choice so their kids get a chance to practice and develop social skills (and so the parents get an occasional break from 24/7 child care.) Check out this article on the Dos and Don’ts of Quarantine Pods and CNN’s Guide to Creating a Pandemic Bubble. This article in Slate does a nice job of talking through one person’s experience with this. The point of a pod is to be intentional – rather than having random encounters, you really think through what type of contact you most need, and with whom, and be sure that the people in your pod have a similar risk tolerance and exposure level to you.

Navigate Social Barriers

Bubbles require a lot of awkward conversations and negotiations. When gathering with others, it can be hard to be the one to start the conversation about how to reduce the risk of gathering. Some people, especially teens and younger adults, may find themselves going along with risky behavior because they don’t want to be seen as the wimpy, over-cautious person. They may need somewhere to practice limit setting. We learned with the “Just Say No” approach to substance abuse education that it wasn’t enough.

Just Say No was “essentially a failure at dissuading young people from doing drugs. … teenagers enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as those who did not receive this training. Programs that did make a difference acknowledged the difficulty of just saying no, coaching kids on how to handle social expectation and peer pressure.” (Source)

“[Effective programs] teach students the social skills they need to refuse drugs and give them opportunities to practice these skills with other students — for example, by asking students to play roles on both sides of a conversation about drugs, while instructors coach them about what to say and do. [They] take into account the importance of behavioral norms: they emphasize to students that substance use is not especially common and thereby attempt to counteract the misconception that abstaining from drugs makes a person an oddball.” (Source)

Starting to have conversations about reducing coronavirus risk while still interacting with others can help reduce the overall risks.

Role Modeling

Sometimes the most effective way to make change is to be the change you want to see.

If parents want their kids to wear bike helmets, they should too. If one tween in a group puts on a bike helmet, the others will too.

We started wearing masks to the grocery store before it became common, and once I noticed that someone we passed by then took her mask out of her purse and put it on. She wasn’t quite bold enough to be the “only one” but seeing other people make that choice made it more comfortable for her.

I have also found that if I can talk about my decision-making in a calm, reasoned way, rather than with fear-mongering and scolding, it can create more openness in others for making their own thought-out decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions.

“Unlike abstinence-only messaging, which simply instructs people to stay home, a harm-reduction approach acknowledges that people will take risks for a variety of reasons, including a basic need for pleasure….The abstinence-only and harm-reduction approaches share the same goal of reducing the cumulative burden of severe illness and death. But harm reduction is more likely to achieve that goal by supporting lower-risk—but not zero-risk—activities that can be sustained over time.” (Source)

Vox has a very helpful collection of coronavirus risk reduction tips: 8 ways to go out and stay safe.

Screen Time in Coronavirus Time


So, you’ve all heard the cautions about too much screen time. For example, the 2016 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which talks of risks like obesity, sleep challenges, exposure to inappropriate content and more. We’ve worried about how much screen time was too much.

And then… covid-19 came. And for most kids, screen time began to fill way more hours than in life before coronavirus.

We have a 9 year old and he spends so many hours on screen now: 2 – 3 hours a day on school work; teleconferences for school, for Sunday school, for appointments with his psychologist; Skype calls with his siblings and grandparents who we can’t see in person; playdates on Zoom; Wii sports on rainy days; ebooks since the library is closed, and a couple family movie nights a week. Plus, his reward for completing his day’s school work is… yep, you guessed it… a little screen time playing Pokemon or Minecraft.

It’s more screen time than we could have previously imagined. It’s certainly not optimal for development. But it is the current reality for many of us. So, rather than talking about “just say no to screen time”, I think we need to take more of a harm-reduction approach.

So, we’ll look first at how to keep young eyes and young bodies healthy while using screens, then we’ll take pointers from this approach, from the Media Policy Project:

We argue that this long-held focus on the quantity of digital media use is now obsolete, and that parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).

Here are some tips, collated from lots of sources:

Improve “Screen Hygiene” During Use

For their eyes:

  • Screens should be 18 – 24 inches from eyes
  • Use screens in locations with good lighting without a lot of glare (or consider a matte screen filter)
  • Adjust brightness and contrast for comfort
  • Consider night mode or blue shade mode on devices after about 7 pm to shut out the blue light which can disrupt sleep
  • Remind your child to blink now and then to avoid dry eyes and eye strain
  • 20-20-20 breaks: Set a timer – every 20 minutes, they should look at something 20’ away for 20 seconds (plus spend some time outdoors every day, looking at a far distance)

For their body:

  • Use good posture – typical advice is to sit so there’s a 90 degree angle at your ankles, your knees, and your hips, and that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle as your hands rest on the keyboard. Start with that advice, but then adjust as needed for your child’s personal comfort.
  • Choose good furniture – if you don’t have furniture that fits your child for their screen use, perhaps look for inexpensive options to help their posture
  • Vary seating choices – if possible, have multiple work stations so they’re not putting weight on exactly the same parts of their body all day long every day, or have an exercise ball to sit on, or a standing-desk station
  • Stretch breaks – encourage your child to take breaks between activities… at the end of a chapter, after finishing a school assignment, every 20 minutes, whatever “signposts” make sense; dance breaks are also great (try

Context Matters

Think about when, where and how screens are being used. Establish daily routines. Make sure you’re clear on when and where screens can be used, and when and where they’re limited or off-limits.

Take Breaks from Screens

Try to create some screen-free times in your day and in your week.

  • No screens at mealtimes? Many families declare the table to be a screen free zone so you have a chance to connect as a family and practice social skills and casual conversation. (Also, screen use during meals is strongly associated with obesity.)
  • Screen free days? I know several families who declare one day a week (often a Saturday or Sunday) to be screen-free.
  • Consider screen curfews: the light from screen media and the high stimulation caused by screens can delay sleep onset, and shorten sleep duration (source). Avoid screens right before bedtime.
  • Consider no screens in the bedroom: even if they’re “just charging”, they can buzz or light up as notifications come in, and this can disrupt sleep, and tempt your child to return to the screen at any hour of the night.
  • Be sure to balance screen time with physical activity, and with social interaction between members of the household.
  • Be sure to include some time every day outdoors – even if the weather is dreadful. Do choose outdoor areas that are less populated, rather than crowded parks, so it’s easy to maintain social distancing.
    • When we are indoors and using screens, we’re triggering our sympathetic nervous system – adrenaline responses keep us intensely focused, which is helpful for work, but exhausting to our bodies.
    • When we are outdoors, we shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is about conserving energy while the body is at rest, so the body and mind can heal itself. After spending just a few minutes in nature, we have lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels.
    • Read more about the benefits of outdoor time.

Content Matters

Not all screen time is created equal. Some is helpful and beneficial, especially in this time of social isolation. Screens offer opportunities for learning, connection, adventure, and entertainment.

Some screen time is less helpful. Let’s think about some categories of screen use, and for each, figure out how to increase the benefits, and reduce the downsides.

  • Social time with friends and family on screens – Skype, Facetime, etc.
    • Connection Matters. I believe that when we are physically distant, having interactive conversations with others, even if it’s on a screen, is truly essential for our mental health and for a child’s developing social skills.
    • If you as a parent need a break during your time home 24-7 with a child, this social screen time with someone else can offer that to you. Our 26 year old son “babysits” our 9 year old over a Skype call while my husband and I have a date night at home.
    • For young children, think about how to make it as interactive as you can. For little ones, it helps to add a physical component – have your child show grandma a favorite toy – grandma can show your child the steps they’re doing as they cook a meal. It may be easier for your child to pay attention if someone is reading them a book rather than trying to engage them in a conversation. (Note for those who might not have kid books at home: on YouTube, you can find LOTS of great kid book read-alouds – I share my screen on Zoom and show the video to a child with the sound muted and I read the words.)
    • For older kids, try playing games together online: charades? hangman? There’s lots of online gaming platforms, like Jackbox games,, Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles, and more.
    • If you want a break away from the screen, consider also trying phone calls while going for a walk.
  • School work on screens – lots of school work is now online
    • Think about whether any of it can be physical work. For example, is there anywhere you can print a worksheet and have your child write on it with a pencil rather than using a stylus on a screen? If the math book is showing pictures of blocks, can you pull out real blocks? Instead of writing a paper on the computer, can they hand-write it, scan it, and email it in?
    • For younger children, kindergarten through second grade, you may want to ask their teacher if you can opt out of some of the online learning and instead do hands-on learning at home.
    • Have your child talk to you (or a family member or friend) about the work they’ve done – that helps move it off the screen and into their interactive brain.
  • Online extra-curriculars and summer camps
    • As summer arrives, many parents (especially working parents) are wondering how to keep their kids occupied and engaged. And while I’d encourage lots of outdoor time, and art, and free play, if you turn to screens, consider something like Outschool, which offers interactive online classes with a teacher and a small group of kids.
  • TV, Movies, Videos
    • Ask yourself: Could you find books or audio books or podcasts that engage them as much in stories? (My son listens to story podcasts as he builds Lego.)
    • Can you watch together and make it a social activity instead of them watching alone? Or could they watch with a friend or family member using Zoom or Skype and sharing a screen, or using Amazon watch parties on Twitch?
    • Choose quality TV or video that teaches something, shows diverse people and experiences and reflects your family values. I really love Common Sense Media for researching our options.
    • Choose things that take you on an adventure outside your home. This is a great time for nature documentaries, or shows about foreign lands – anything with a touch of the exotic can be a welcome break!
    • Have your child watch where you can keep eyes and ears on what they’re watching.
    • If your child is using YouTube or other similar platforms, check their history now and then to make sure they’re making appropriate choices, and have conversations with them about what they’re consuming.
    • Set limits on what’s appropriate in your family and what’s not. If your child violates those limits, then impose consequences – take away entertainment screen time.
  • Video games – I’ve got a kid whose deepest passions are video games, so I get that they’re an easy motivator to get kids to do another thing they don’t want to do (i.e. if you finish your school work you can play Pokemon…). Just try not to over-use them.
    • Ask yourself: Is there something else they could do? Is there some other reward that would motivate them?
    • Can you play together and make it a social activity instead of them playing alone?
    • Choose games with challenges – instead of just mindless Candy Crush games or platforming games that only teach hand-eye coordination, look for games with some cognitive challenges too – perhaps puzzles to solve, or building challenges to pursue.
    • Minimize games with lots of violence or age-inappropriate language, sexuality, and situations. Again, check out reviews on Common Sense Media or elsewhere.
  • Escape / Zoning Out – Realistically, in our current quarantined life, sometimes we just want to escape into something, and screens offer an easy escape. If you catch yourself or your child doing this, think:
    • What else could we do – could we just go for a walk? Or exercise? Put on music and dance? Do some crafts, play some games? Choose things that emphasize social connections and emphasize physical movement as a balance for all that screen time.
    • Try to minimize background TV and mindless clicking through social media. If you need the occasional zoning out time, consider setting a timer to remind yourself to look up and ask yourself if you want to continue or if you’re ready to move on to another activity.

What Else?

Several of my points above were “ask  yourself what else you could do.” I think that’s a key thing. If you consider what all your options are in the moment, and the screen solution is the best answer, then use the screen without feeling guilty. But, if you can think of other satisfying options, then choose those more often.

Now might be the time to try something new: Yes, you can be one of those folks who is telling everyone on social media about your families’ new hobbies – new musical instruments, your family’s first garden, your sourdough starter projects, roller blading adventures, art work, your new puppy, or the domino chain Rube Goldberg your child built!

As much as we love Lego in our family, I’ve previously resisted just having a bin out all the time. The clutter bugs me. But, in the midst of this quarantine-time, we’ve surrendered half of our dining table to a free-build Lego zone to encourage that hands-on play whenever possible. And this weekend, I think we’ll set up a tent in the living room, and toss a pile of books inside.

Read More:

I’ve written previously about the Benefits and Risks of Screen Time, and Making Screen Time Work for Your Family. It has a lot more tips about how to choose appropriate content, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

The most helpful article I have found on the topic of coronavirus screen time is “Screen Time Recommendations For Parents: How Much Is Too Much For Kids?” from Child Development Institute

My final piece of advice is be gentle on yourself – don’t feel guilty for using screens! We’re parenting in a situation unlike any other before us, and we’ll just have to do the best we can to make it through each day.

Making School-from-Home Work

Like millions of parents around the world right now, I’m learning how to support my child in “attending” public school from home. (Note: I call this school-from-home rather than homeschooling, because  it’s a very different experience for those who are  doing it due to the pandemic, versus those who chose it for a long-term path.) I’ll share here the system that is working for us, in case it is helpful to others, but there is no one right approach that will work for everyone.

What the School Gives Us

My son is in the third grade in the Lake Washington School District (in the suburbs of Seattle). For 3rd grade, they’re supposed to do about 150 minutes a week of reading, 150 minutes of math,  60 minutes of writing, one “library” activity, one music and one PE. Plus, if time, 30 minutes science and 30 minutes social studies. It’s supposed to add up to 1 – 2 hours a day, or about 8 – 10 hours a week. We find it takes about 2 – 2.5 hours a day to complete the assignments.

It is primarily screen-based, with apps and online learning platforms that guide the kids through the activities. They can do the activities at any time. Twice a week, they have a brief class teleconference on Teams where they mostly check-in – sharing what they’ve been up to. Weekly schedules are sent each Monday, and every Thursday teachers check if the kids have done their work.

Here is a sample weekly schedule.


Do you feel overwhelmed looking at that? I sure do! We haven’t even shown this to our son, because he would overload just from imagining all this work hanging over him.

On Facebook, I’ve seen some parents say they’ve set up a schedule, where they do reading from 9 – 9:30, math from 9:30 – 10, and so on. That would not work with my son. Forcing him to do something when he’s not in the mood is really a battle – if he can choose when to do something, it goes much better. At least most parents built in recess / free play blocks into their schedules, and that would make it better!

Some parents sit down one on one with their kids all day – as a working parent, I can’t manage that.

Our System

Our school system did not offer the online learning in the early weeks of the closure. But we needed to do something… my husband and I work full-time from home right now, and we need ways to keep our son busy! If it were up to him, he would be on video games and YouTube all day long, and barring that, would read all day long. He needed to have more balance than that, so we invented our Suddenly Homeschooling system. When the school district added in distance learning, we adapted our system. It works great for us, as it gives him a lot of flexibility and choices, while also providing a lot of structure and routine (very important to our son, who is autistic) and communicating what our expectations are for him to accomplish.

cardsWe have a system of cards, each representing a piece of his work. He has to complete 8 cards a day. When he has completed 4, he earns an hour of screen time. When he has completed 8, he earns a second hour of screen time. Then, he is done with his work for the day, and done with screens for the day.  Each day he has 6 cards that are required (morning check-in, reading, math, writing, science/social studies, and physical activity – he needs to burn off some energy for all our sanity!) The others are flexible – practicing playing recorder, calling his grandparents, helping with extra chores, etc. Click here to see all his: Cards.

We keep the cards on the desk where my husband and I work, and whenever our son finishes a task, he comes over and we check it off, and help him figure out what he wants to work on next. If he needs help, one of us helps him, and then gets back to work. If he wants a snuggle, he sits in our laps and we work around him. We work breakfast and lunch in around the schedule he chooses – he often eats while listening to a read-aloud or watching a video for school. Or he takes a break and we eat socially – it’s up to him.

Having the cards rather than a checklist works really well for us. The tangible nature of being able to sort through the cards, put the completed tasks in one pile, put the next task on the top of the pile, and see the required task pile dwindle as the day goes on feels much more manageable for us than looking at that checklist of all the week’s activities all at once.

Some days, he stays really focused, and he whips through the first 4 points by 10:30 in the morning, and done with all his work by 1:30. Other days, he dinks around, or chooses to read for fun instead of doing his school work, and it takes till late afternoon. When he’s dinking, we remind him of the impact of that choice, but sometimes he decides that’s the way he wants to balance his responsibilities and his relaxation, which we think is good learning, as that’s how things will work in college and much of adult life.

And if he’s done his work, which has allowed us to complete our work, then we have the shared reward of evenings that are relaxed social time for all of us. Movies, walks, and games.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. We have certainly had some big battles! (I feel like i need to post a sign to my neighbors saying “If you hear screaming from the house, don’t worry… it’s just that we said screen time is done for the day.”) But all in all, I feel like we’re on the right track for our family.

* Not One Size Fits All

I want to be really clear that I know different things work for different people -different kids have different skills, temperaments, and challenges in their environments – different parents have different skills, temperaments, and challenges in their environments – there’s never one right answer!

I also totally get that not everyone has the same resources available to them – we are lucky to have the devices we need for online schooling, good internet access, reliable access to food and safe housing, and the ability to work from home and maintain our income, and we’re two parents with one kid (we have two other children, but they are adults and are not living at home), so truly, I have no judgment for other people who are having a hard time making things work.

I think it is a fair and reasonable thing for some parents to choose to opt out of schooling from home. Doing school is mostly a soothing routine for us. If it creates tons of stress for your family, and trying to get through it is feeling stressful or even traumatic for you, you might make other choices. I hear (on Facebook – haven’t verified) that you’re not required to school children under age 8. (And I believe in the power of play-based learning for young kids! So you might be able to create a play-based system that works for you). I suspect that for older kids, you could do some paperwork to transfer over to “homeschooling” which has looser requirements.

Or many parents are just communicating with their schools and teachers and saying “here’s what our family is doing for school” (e.g. ‘schoolwork in morning only – we don’t do any in the afternoon’, or ‘we’re doing the math and the check-in, but we’ll do our own reading and writing lessons’) and there seems to be a lot of flexibility in the responses to that. The LWSD website says “During the mandated school facility closure… teachers will [track] students who are not participating in remote learning or responding to communication. This information will be used to help us reach out to students and families who may need additional support. This information will not be included in students’ official records or used for enrollment or penalties.”

Find the path that works for your family as we move through these unprecedented times.

As a parent educator, when parents ask me “is ____ a problem?” I always come back with: “is it a problem for you or your child, or is it working well for everyone in your family?” If you have found something that works for you, hurray! If not, then hopefully my post gives you some insight into one possible option.

Postscript… LWSD system

This is just for anyone who wants more info about what the programs are that our school is offering.

Starting last week, they are offering remote learning resources, and kids are required to submit schoolwork that will be graded.nThe work is all organized in an online platform called Power School Learning. So, they log in to PSL and most other things are linked from there. (Note: one thing that makes us crazy is that all the different sites have different user names and different log-in info! We’ve created a document in One Note that we can see on all our devices, so it’s easy to look up the passwords anytime / anywhere we need them.)

They have a morning check-in question they can all add a comment to, Wonders vocabulary, Lexia reading, Envision math, Dreambox math, Edutyping, plus materials developed by the teachers: writing activities, science and social studies, listening to a class read-aloud book, and doing activities provided by the music teacher, PE teacher, and counselor. They’re having a Microsoft Teams meeting with their teacher twice a week – these are mostly social check-in times. (Some parents have complained about this, wishing their teachers would teach, but as a teacher myself, I would argue that what the kids need out of this time is the thing that no online app can possibly replicate, and that’s the social-emotional aspects of connecting to their teacher, their classmates – people outside their home.)

For kids who are strong readers, who enjoy screen-based activity, and who don’t need lots of social interaction with peers, it’s a workable program for this public health crisis. But it’s not as good a match for many.

Suddenly Homeschooling

Due to coronavirus, millions of parents across the country (and around the world) are suddenly homeschooling their children. Some may feel prepared (they’re teachers!), some may have all the resources they need at home, but many of us are under-prepared, under-supplied, and also trying to figure out how to manage that along with all of our other responsibilities in this new era. We’re all faking it together and figuring it out on the spur of the moment!

For us, school suddenly disappeared. One afternoon we found out that at the end of the school day, they were closing for two weeks, then the next day that became six weeks. We took a few days off from being responsible. For the first four days, we let our son do whatever he wanted to (well, we limited his screen time to two hours a day, but otherwise he was flexible). But we told him we were just doing that for a few days, and he should expect that on Monday, we’d start homeschooling. That gave me a few days to come up with ideas.

I turned to homeschooling parents for advice, and I’ll share with you here the plan we’ve put together for our nine year old.

But first, let’s say:

Go Easy on Yourself

Don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself! Don’t feel like things have to be perfect!! Don’t worry that this will cause them to fall behind and never catch up. We’re all just going to do the best we can. Luckily, kids are resilient, and they will bounce back from this experience! If some days, you’re exhausted and swamped with your own burdens, don’t feel guilty about using screen time. If you feel like you should be making your child do math homework, but you just need to get the laundry put away, then today becomes Life Skills 101 instead of math, and you teach your child to fold laundry. It’s all OK.

And if you know that trying to homeschool your children would make you miserable, would make them miserable and turn every day into a battle, then don’t do it!! We never want kids to resent “school” so much that they decide they hate learning! I believe that love of learning is the biggest key to success in school and life, so do whatever works for your family to preserve that. Feel free to run with the Free Range philosophy and do whatever whim strikes you for the day, letting your child self guide their learning – reading books all day, doing Lego all day, whatever!

Many parents find that unstructured spontaneity works well for their family, many recommend having a bit more structure than that, so the rest of the post offers some structure and routine in case that is what is helpful to your family, as it is for mine.

Making a Plan

I’ve seen a variety of advice, but this is the one I find the most helpful summary. It’s from Mary Oemig, President Boom Learning (former homeschooler).

Each child should write a plan for the day each morning. Younger kids might need a little help with ideas. Older kids should include open items assigned from teachers.

All kids should include:

1. A reading activity
2. A writing activity
3. A math activity (games are great for younger kids)
4. A science activity (for youngers can be observations about spring during a walk – note changes each day, observe weather, online videos)
5. A social studies activity – history of plagues is relevant, lots of great educational videos on YouTube. 🙂
6. A PE activity – walks and bikes are good. Playing on playground equipment not so much.
7. A plan for playtime/free time.
8. Life skills / chores

Develop a system for family members to communicate to each other “Do Not Disturb” and “Available for Play”. Reinforce respecting whichever system you come up with.
Parents should have a set time during the day to review the plan with each kid to help them learn time management. This is a great opportunity to develop self-management skills.

I suggest that you do not dictate the schedule but rather guide children on developing their own plan.

For those who care: The research source for this approach is Tools of the Mind. They use this method with children as young as pre-school.

The idea of creating categories to complete was really helpful for me. (I’ve been teaching this idea for years when talking about how to choose toys and activities for babies, toddlers, and young children, using the theory of multiple intelligences – read more here.) I decided to build a system of cards for my son.

For each card, he earns either a full point or a half point. He’s not allowed to have any video game screen time before noon, no matter what. After noon, WHEN he has completed 5 points (~2.5 hours) THEN he gets one hour of free choice screen time. He then has to complete 3 more points to earn another hour of screen time, and that’s the maximum for the day.

My husband and I are both working full time from home, so his activities needed to be things he can do mostly independently.


Each card has criteria for what could qualify for completion – sample activities he can choose from. Here are his cards. The first 4 cards are required to complete every day. The others are options to choose from.

  • Reading – 30 minutes. 1 point. Lexia app from school, reading packets from school, or reading a book. To count for school work, it must be a book with a plot. Fiction. Not comics. Paper or ebook is fine. (He loves reading and would read all day, so this is the easy one.)
  • Writing – 20 – 30 minutes. 1 point. Practice on Edutyping app. Journal, write a letter, email, write a book report to share with a family member (we might also start writing Amazon reviews), write reflections on science homework. (He hates writing, so this is our hardest one.)
  • Math – 30 minutes. 1 point. Can use Dreambox or Xtramath – online programs from school district, or complete math packet from school. He can also use apps that drill him on multiplication facts. Sudoku, Numbrix, or other math puzzles. Math heavy board games or card games with parents.
  • Physical Activity – 30 minutes. 1 point. Could walk, bike, roller blade, play catch, etc. (This is a good time to rummage through your garage or closets for that sporting equipment you never use… we’ve got roller blades we hadn’t used in a decade!) He could do Wii sports to count for this, but he must spend a half hour outside every day, so if he does Wii sports, has to plan another outside activity, even if that’s sitting in the sun while reading. (Note: yes, you can still go outside now! Just minimize touching anything others have touched, so no playground time, and keep your distance from others.)
  • Science – 30 minutes. 1 point. Can include an educational video (there’s lots of great science content on video!) or a podcast. Could be a book. Must include something hands-on / active learning. (I teach hands-on science classes, so this one is easy for me… if you’re looking for resources for science learning for kids age 3 – 8, check out my other blog,
  • Social Studies – 30 minutes, 1 point. Can include video, podcast, or book. Can cover history, other cultures, social/emotional skills, and so on. (We’re thinking of podcasts like Short and Curly – an ethics / philosophy podcast from Australia, or Dad and I Love History, or Forever Ago. Let us know what else you like!)
  • Call his grandparents. Half point. We haven’t seen them in person for two weeks because we don’t want to risk exposing them to anything (they’re in their 80’s), so it’s nice to connect via Skype. His grandma is teaching him some Spanish as they talk.
  • Play recorder for ten minutes. Or make art. Half point.
  • “Life skills” – like folding laundry, cooking, cleaning. (One of the things we can all do with our coronavirus break is bring back Home Economics and shop / Industrial Arts classes! Whatever work you need to do, have your child do it with you! Half point.
  • Social Time Online – Zoom or Skype calls with friends, family, church members, and so on. Half point.

At the beginning of each morning, we have a stack of cards. He gets to decide what activity to do first. I flip the card over, and write when he started doing that activity. When he reports back, I write what he did so I have a record. I’m not super strict about the 30 minutes – anywhere in the 20 – 45 minute range counts. He can combine some activities: for example, if he plays recorder for his grandma on Skype, that counts for two half point cards. If he draws while he listens to a podcast, that counts for art and social studies. If he writes about science, that could count for both. (He has to ask permission to double count before starting the activity.)

So, you’ll notice that if you add up all those cards, it does not add up to maybe 4-5ish hours, not 6.5 hours, which is how long his school day was. (And if he doubles up activities, it’s less than four hours.) Parents might worry that they’re not doing “enough” if it’s not 6.5 hours of school work. Here’s the deal – at school, they’re not getting 6.5 hours really! They’re eating lunch, having recess, walking down the hall to music class, waiting for their turn with the teacher, and so on. You can get more done in 3 – 4 hours one-on-one. And they (and you) will have time off from worrying about “school.”

Having the flexibility to decide what order he does things in has been super helpful to him. And if he’s enjoying a science show and wants to watch two, he can do that, he just knows it will take longer to get through his points and longer till that screen time, but he can make that choice himself, which he likes.

So, I’ve created the structure and the requirements, but give him a lot of freedom of choice within that structure. So far it’s working well for us… hopefully it continues to.

And if you think it sounds super hard and time consuming, I promise you it’s not! I literally have been working 8 – 10 hours every day and squeezing management of his “school” in and around that, and it’s just some quick check-ins every half hour. And if you think I must have an angel child for this to work, I should say that my son is diagnosed as autistic, and suspected ADHD, and we know the principal at the school very well, and the resource room teacher very well, because he spends a lot of time with them! But, for him having this structure, with the freedom of choice within the structure is exactly what he needs.

If you have advice, suggestions for resources, or questions, just add them to the comments!