10 Simple Hacks (for Busy Parents) to Engage Kids In Meaningful Learning at Home

Feel guilty about allowing your kids too much screen time? Here are 10 ways to encourage learning at home

girl baking with father in kitchen

This week I let my 4-year-old daughter play on the iPad for two hours while my 1-year-old son napped and I worked at home. My sister, who also has a young child, and I talked about the guilt we feel when we allow our kids to suck time away on screens.

I want to expose my kids to new ideas and experiences. At the same time, I’m busy (like everyone else). So, how can I make sure my daughter is learning?

I know I am supposed to follow my child’s interests (I co-authored a book with Carri Schneider and Tom Vander Ark about student-centered learning). Somehow all advice and experiences I have had as an educator teaching other people’s kids don’t always play out at home, in real time. 

So I’ve started gathering ‘hacks’ — simple ideas and pieces of advice that can lead to big new ideas at home. These hacks inspire a child’s love of learning, teach them something new and don’t require a ton of work.

Gathered from the wisdom of the collective parenting community who contributed to our Smart Parents blog series, which ran in 2015 on GettingSmart and The Huffington Post, here are 10 simple hacks to encourage learning at home, for kids of any age. 

1. Grab a stopwatch and teach your child how to use it

My daughter got this great stopwatch for her birthday. She times herself doing everything. How long will it take me to run from one side of the house to the other? How long can I stand on one foot? Kids could turn this into a science project with graphs, or they could just have fun for a few minutes while you do the dishes.

2. Use measuring cups in the bathtub and the kitchen

I got this idea from my friend Megan, a former math teacher. Using measuring cups is a great way to get your children thinking about numbers, size, volume and so on. If your kids are older, use the measuring cups in the kitchen. They can help cook while you monitor the process or talk on the phone to your sister (see no. 3).

3. Turn the kitchen into a learning laboratory

When they are younger, kids can use the kitchen to learn the names of all the foods (you can do the same thing at the grocery store) and they can also spot colors and shapes. As they get older, the kitchen becomes a place to pass down traditions and family stories. If you do this fairly consistently while they are young, by the time they are 11 they may be cooking meals for you. I have witnessed this in my niece, who is an excellent keeper of family lore. This idea came from my friend Caroline, who loves to cook. Full disclosure: I am completely failing at this. 

4. Use dinner time wisely

After the kids have made the dinner (or at least haven’t burned down the house), focus on making dinnertime count. According to a report by the Center on Addictions and Substance Abuse (CASA), teens who have daily dinners with their family are almost 40 percent more likely to report receiving “mostly As and Bs” in school compared to teens who have dinner with their family fewer times per week. My friend Mary has plenty of tips about making the most out of family dinners in "You Can Thank Mom for More than the Meal Itself: Making Mealtime Count."

5. Start a SOLE

SOLE stands for self-organized learning environment. Sugata Mitra, winner of the Ted Prize for his School in the Cloud concept, has set up a website that can show you in minutes how to set up a SOLE and then have the kids learning from the living room. The basic idea is that kids are asked some big questions, decide what they want to investigate and then get connected to adult mentors online who help them get answers. This all happens in under an hour. This is perfect if you have elementary- to middle school-aged kids.

6. Play some video games with your kids

I loved that my parents played video games with my sisters and me. They even helped us turn our love for video games into a memorable science fair project, for which my sister won honorable mention in her eighth grade science fair. You could occasionally play with your child and then allow them to play during free time (maybe after they have completed homework and gotten some exercise). You can talk to them about what they accomplished on the video games, which might create opportunities for further learning.

7. Teach your kids how to make videos

Do your kids like watching videos on YouTube? Because I do not know a kid who doesn’t. You want to know what they would like more than watching them? Making them! Help them set up a station to make their own videos if they are young, or if they are older, talk with them about topics and ideas and ways they can inspire other kids. See my friend Carri’s blog where she writes about how her daughter reviewed toys for other children on video and then put them up online. Do your kids have an inspirational message or song to sing? Wonderful. Do they want to talk about ways they have mastered video games? Awesome. While they are occupied, open all that mail that is piling up or even do a short yoga workout.

8. Set a timer

So let’s say you have to resort to the iPad, TV, YouTube or another captivating screen to get your kids to sit still while you get on with your work, cleaning, etc. How about setting a timer on your phone (one with a chime your child likes as well) to remind both you and your kids that enough time has passed and it’s time for a break? Know your limits for screen time and use a timer to help you implement these consistently.

9. Use short bursts of time for math and science

On your way to bed, you could do Bedtime Math, an app that teaches kids to love numbers and apply math to fun and whimsical situations. Or, there’s Bedtime Science, created by Ramsey Musallam, which features videos of kids conducting short science experiments right before bed.

10. Put the kids to bed

Want more time for yourself? Get those kids to bed and pour yourself a glass of wine, read a book or call your sister. You deserve it.

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