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8 Super-Cheap, Super-Easy Ways to Keep Kids Learning (Without Losing Your Mind)

These genius hacks for parents are kind of sneaky, too!

Published on: March 24, 2020

kid reading in bed

Parenting in the time of the coronavirus? The struggle is real. Many of us are suddenly trial-by-fire educators and work-from-home employees, confined to our living quarters with few resources to keep our kids entertained, educated and engaged — while also attempting to keep our jobs.

It’s going to require a lot of creative thinking to survive and thrive given the circumstances. But the good news is, there are countless ways to continue kids’ learning that are cheap and easy to do — even sneaky! — and they don’t require a ton of instruction or oversight. 

Here are 8 super-cheap, super-easy ways to keep kids learning without losing your mind:

1. Make it fun

My kids haaaate practicing the little workbook sheet music they’re assigned during their music lessons. But when I showed my daughter Avery a virtual lessons site for saxophone on YouTube and let her choose which songs to work on, she practiced “Havana” and “Despacito” one billionty times in a week. Ditto for Grant, my 7-year-old when I taught him to play a simple version of the “Star Wars” theme on the piano. I’m not even sure I’m glad. 

2. Let them do something “naughty”

I recently let my kids chop up an old sheet from the closet. But first, I made a big deal about thinking it over. I’ve never seen them so gleeful about an old, worn-out piece of fabric.

When my kids beg to read longer at bedtime, I let them, then make myself scarce. I’m pretty sure they think they’re sneaking something by me when they stay up late into the night for just “one more page.” 

Bonus: The more irreverent they think they’re being, the less they’ll involve you. Trust me, it works every time.

3. Be sneaky about it

Play audiobooks in the background during chores, art or play time, or on scenic drives. 

My eldest daughter, Norah, 13, has listened to hundreds of books while doing her weekly chores, working on art projects or walking the dog. The best part? Unlike the bound books she reads, I pick the content of the audiobooks she listens to, supplying a steady stream from my Audible account. She picks from the pool of books provided, but all the books downloaded are ones I’ve chosen. I mostly stock up on titles related to educational themes that I want her to learn, such as history or science. She’s now discovered a love of historical fiction. 

Don’t want to pay to subscribe to Audible? No problem. Audible is now offering several audiobooks for free. Or you can check them out from your local library and download them digitally onto your device via Overdrive’s Libby app.

4. Keep kids connected

One thing we have on our side right now? Kids are going to get bored. My kids have reached the point where they’ll take any opportunity to connect with their friends. So why not give it to them? Norah loves movies, so we set up a virtual watch party on Netflix with her friends. You might even be able to suggest they get homeschool credit for the day if they make it an educational one.  Avery loves reading, so I set up a private reading group on GoodReads for her and her friends. 

5. Make it a competition

A few years ago, I unwittingly started a tradition of an annual “Cake Wars” competition. Inspired by the Food Network show of the same name, I created a cupcake-wars-themed birthday party for my daughter. I set up a table of ingredients for kids to choose from, borrowed a second mixer and let the kids compete to see who could concoct the best cupcakes. It was such a hit that my kids asked if we could do it again the following year — a tradition was born. 

To prepare each year, the kids scour Pinterest for extravagant recipes and cake designs, then spend weeks sketching designs and making plans for the competition. We’re a big family, so we can do this just by dividing our kids into groups of two. But if your family is smaller, you can still try something similar. Compete in a virtual competition and send pictures and video to virtual judges. 

Worried this will require too much of your time and energy? If you’re less inclined or able to let your kitchen become a war zone, get creative about competitions that don’t require big clean-ups. Charades with another family over Skype, a Zoom spelling bee and Minecraft competitions all count. The point is, whether social distancing is involved or not, finding excuses for kids to get together (online or IRL) often involves a little healthy competition. 

6. Do it together

My daughter, Avery, loves to talk. She also needs a lot of individual attention. One way I give it to her is through a shared mother-daughter journal. I fill out the sections that offer prompts for me, then put it under her pillow when it’s her turn to write. We both look forward to reading one another’s answers. You can make your own shared journal or buy one; this is the one I bought for Avery.

Or, try this: My husband announced to the kids that he was embarking on a 100-day project to learn to play the guitar. Now, whenever he practices, the kids are quick to join in. Norah decided she’d follow her dad’s lead and take on a 100-day yoga challenge. Soon, there were four yoga mats on the floor each night before bed. It’s amazing how willing and ready kids are to join in on activities they’d resist if you tried to force them to participate.

7. Put ‘pester power’ to work

Marketers have a term for the annoying way kids hassle us for the things they want until we give in: pester power. Put pester power to educational use and tell your kids you’ll consider anything they ask for — if they put it in writing. I’ve already received a persuasive essay from my kids on why we need a second dog and why I should pay them to do chores. For this strategy to work, you do actually have to say yes to some of their essay requests, or they’ll stop doing them.

Or try a fun writing prompt book. My dyslexic third-grader is a reluctant writer, but she especially likes Usborne’s “Write and Draw Your Own Comics” and often volunteers to write/draw in her copy of the book without realizing she’s learning.

Other affordable options include this writing prompt for kids and this free 7-day “Writing Blitz” from homeschooling curriculum site Brave Writer.

If you’ve got a history buff in your crew, consider reminding them that journaling during this time creates a record of a historic event.

Norah loves history but doesn’t enjoy writing — when I pointed out that writing about this time was a record of history, she was immediately excited to keep a journal. I encouraged her to take lots of pictures, too, to document this unique time. 

8. Set it and forget it 

If there’s one thing that I enjoy most about fostering my kids' learning, it’s the “set it and forget it” approach to learning. I set out something that I think will interest them in a place where I know they’ll discover it, and then I wait for them to come and ask me about it. I didn’t come up with this on my own: Educators call this “setting the stage” for learning. And yet, it still amazes me how well it works. Try it. Set out something for your kids to observe and see how long it takes before they start asking questions and engaging with it. 

Last week, I set up this water cycle science kit in my house. Even my teenager gets excited when the water levels change (though she'd never admit it). Fill it with water, mark a line on the window with a dry-erase marker, then check to see how much has evaporated each day. 

Or get a pet… Well, maybe not a real one. This cheap Chia pet is fun to watch grow. Set out the box on your dining room table and see how long it takes before your kids want to open it and try it.

Or propagate new growth from your veggie stumps, then watch them grow, filling the water if and when it runs low. I keep some romaine and green onions in clear cups on our kitchen windowsill. It genuinely thrills my daughter Harper, 9, when new growth sprouts from cut-off ends of the original veggies.

Whatever you do, remember that this is a challenging time for many families, so go easy on yourself and your kids if you need to. Know that not even teachers are expecting us to replicate school learning in our homes right now. Do the best you can, sneak in learning where possible and let's do what we can to get through this together.

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