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Best Digital Tools for Educating Children at Home

Your kids. They mean the world to you, and you can keep their attention for an hour or two, but it gets exhausting. Good teachers are heroes!

In these times of full- or part-time “remote learning,” parents from sea to shining sea will continue to be on the hook for the organization of their progeny’s pedagogy. From three days a week in Montgomery County, Maryland to the full five in Fremont County, California, the burden is real for many parents and guardians, not just in the USA but in large parts of the Americas, as well as in western Asia and North Africa.

For those of you lucky to have access to computers and the online world, you didn’t need COVID-19 to know that our modern devices are valuable assistants in child-minding when used responsibly. Who hasn’t experienced a calm weekend afternoon thanks to a well-placed episode or two of Dora the Explorer or Blue’s Clues?

The year 2020 has been an odd one. Sometimes it seems like we are living in a perpetual ‘now,’ forced to adapt day-by-day to new, unforeseen conditions. But make no mistake: if we get to reap the benefit of so many high-quality educational tools and of so much good knowledge-sharing around educating our children, it isn’t the result of the business world figuring out they could make money during this pandemic.

The apps, sites, and ideas that will make educating at home easier for everyone are the products of years of research and development by activist pioneers, great educators, and field experts, supported by some of the biggest charitable trusts in the world.

A Bit of Theory

You know about the Khan Academy and you can figure out the best education apps in a few minutes. But at times your children will need more than the best apps can give. They will need meaningful time off-screen. They will need time to roam, figuratively if not literally. And they will need time with you, their primary educator.

For you, how you spend that time can make the difference between having a good time or feeling frustrated and depressed. Three recent trends in education can help you build a ladder up to the fun stuff.

Chicken building with blocks

Project-Based Learning

Distance learning is the perfect time for parents to discover more about Project-Based Learning if they are unfamiliar and to give it a try.

Project-Based Learning: the name says it all. “Learn by Doing.” Let kids agree on a project, given a general anchoring topic and format. Then help them learn all that is needed along the way to produce an agreed-upon outcome. A piece of art, a robot, a dollhouse: a good project requires new skills from multiple disciplines.

Everybody finds the job that they like to do and is purpose-driven to cooperate with others. And they have to present what they made to the public at the end.

If it is so obviously good, why isn’t it happening more? For one, in most schools any extra costs from PBL — personnel, building use, materials — can’t come from already strapped budgets. And from educators, it requires a lot of extra organizing, and they are already very busy.

PBL is more immune to the classroom-borne diseases of boredom, inattention, or rebellion that affect different teachers and different pupils in different measures. But if a teammate is bored or rebellious on a project, then the group should figure out what he or she would like to do, and try hard to find something he or she can enjoy.

Even in a well-oiled project, qualified grown-ups have to spring in to help the kids out of a technical problem or an interpersonal dispute. But mostly their role is to help kids find information sources and to make sure that safety precautions are adhered to.

One clear benefit of PBL is teaching kids teamwork, which will require some creative ideas in the home-isolated context. You can split up the roles in funny ways if there are enough siblings or generations in the household. 

Many projects can work as online collaborations. Many devices we use every day are natural supports for coordinating the kinds of creative tasks that cousins, neighbors, and school friends can do concurrently. Smartphones with voice recorders open up dizzying possibilities for sound-based collaborations. Or the same phones can be used to create or record the panels for a group graphic-novel project.

Resources on PBL:

Chicken playing game on iPad

Learning Through Playing

Learning through Playing is the central belief of a growing movement in the academic community. 

Playing is what children do most naturally. It is often their main way of exploring themselves, the objects in the world, and the other people in the world. What they are doing when they are playing is learning: the reactions of others, the stories that are funny or sad, the way objects stay or fall.

Later, we continue to spend a lot of time playing games, which is a subspace of play called finite play, as distinguished from open-ended play. The games have rules and an agreed-upon condition for reaching the end of a game: the cards run out, one party gets enough points, or a time limit is reached.

Both types of play have their place, and this flow state is known to correspond to a heightened receptivity to learning new skills and perfecting techniques.

Play also allows for failure, disinhibiting people and allowing them to give range to more of their peripheral imagination. The field has yet to produce working templates for the reliable acquisition of more advanced math or science, but in language acquisition, in creative writing, and in literature appreciation, getting into a playful mood in a safe setting has been shown to promote true learning.

Resources for Playing Through Learning:

Chicken doing homework with book and paper

Self-Directed Learning 

Diligent and purposeful, your child is finding the materials and tools around the house to craft experiments to answer a question about tap water. Concentrated, yet lost in reverie, your other child is delicately hand-drawing and coloring a map of Japan with symbols for famous stories where they happened.

If the right mindset and impetus are present, self-directed learning can be close to Nirvana.

Before this focused and productive phase, things might have looked haphazard and chaotic as the child was probing around for a good project. That time of seeking and listening to one’s inner voice is also a part of self-directed learning. The child has to have the freedom to roam intellectually, to think about what questions he or she really wants to ask, and to devise the best way to answer them. 

In the world of self-directed learning, there is often talk of the Contract. In the learning contract, the child explains what she wants to learn and what her motivation is in learning it. She can include a concrete schedule of activities for each week. And finally, with help from the educator, she must set out a formal structure for evaluating the learning goals.

The first step toward SDL is to assess a child’s readiness to learn in such a way. Are they autonomous, organized, and self-disciplined? Are they able to communicate effectively, accept constructive feedback, and engage in self-reflection? 

Resources for SDL:

Resources for Distance Learning

Ratings Organizations and Nonprofits

A few trustworthy initiatives are there to help you navigate the endless sea of educational content in app stores and on the web:

  • EduLulu A Canadian Educational App Rating Site

The Different Age Groups

Some publishers have excellent content for children of a certain age. Here are some pointers to resources for specific stages of development.

Kindergarten-First Grade, 3-5 years old

  • Sesame Street Educational Games, Videos, Activities from Big Bird and Friends
  • Noggin Learning Activities from Nickelodeon Designed by Educators, 60-Day Free Trial
  • National Geographic Gorgeously Designed Remote-Learning Activities
  • Starfall Popular Alphabet Learning Games
  • Endless Alphabet Interactive Alphabet Learning App 
  • ABCMouse English and Spanish, 10,000+ Activities, 7-Day Free Trial

Primary School, 6-9 years

Middle and High School, 10-18 years

  • UCode In-Depth Programming Courses, $99/mo
  • AI 4 ALL Learning Artificial Intelligence
  • The Coding School Courses by Engineers From Leading Software Companies
  • National Geographic Citizen Science and World Exploration Activities
  • GSD Network Social Studies Curricula Around Teen Experiences from Across the World 
  • World 101 Full Course on International Relations

The Formats

Video Courses and Classes



Keep Calm and Try to Have Fun

These are trying times. The best we can do is accept that we are not going to get everything right. That’s why we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.

It is useful to have a clear schedule. Day by day, hour by hour, try to structure the week so that everyone knows what to expect. The framework of recurring activities can be comforting for the children as well as liberating for you. Keep an experimental mindset: if your first attempt isn’t working, adapt it to the conditions in your home and your community.

We will do ourselves a favor if we manage not to take ourselves too seriously and to have some fun in the process. It’s not easy, but there are lots of great ideas in the links above to help us deal creatively with the challenges facing us.

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Ruth Gonzalez avatar

Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth is a writer and blogger from the great state of Texas. She's passionate about all things tech and the newest, latest in electronic gadgets. She's also an animal lover and spends her free time volunteering for her local SPCA. More articles written by Ruth.

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