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By James Clements, posted on 9th April 2020

Learning at home: Buying yourself some time

It’s great having the children home all the time, but (and I’m sure you could see that ‘but’ coming from a mile away) just sometimes it can be priceless to find a little bit of space for yourself.

Whether it is a work phone call, an urgent email to answer, another child who needs your attention, a family member to check in with on the phone, or just time spent sitting alone in a dark room – whatever we’re juggling alongside childcare, sometimes we just need to carve a few precious minutes without distractions.

It’s tempting to pop the TV on or reach for the tablet to keep your childbusy. However, with everyone being stuck at home for most of the day and lots of schools setting work online, it’s likely that they will be spending plenty of time looking at screens at the moment. It might be nice to save the screentime for things that they really enjoy – a favourite computer game or a family film – rather than as a holding activity to keep them occupied while we get something done.

Thankfully, there are a few other things children can get on with independently that will also be useful for their learning at home.

1. Set up an ongoing project

With older primary children, a little bit of time spent setting up a project that your child can continue with independently is time well spent.

It might involve building, creating, writing, or researching something. With a research project, the bigger and broader the area, the better. Perhaps it could be an entire period of history, a country, or their favourite sport. That way they’ll never be finished and it’s easy for them to spend some time carrying on with their research when you really need it, picking up where they left off last time or looking at a new aspect of the same topic.

They can report back with regular updates on how they’re getting on, and some time can be set aside at the end for them to share the fruits of their labour – when you’re in a position to give them your undivided attention.

2. Make some Top Trumps

A quick search online will give you a template that children can use to make their own Top Trumps. They might have a topic that links to their schoolwork (‘Famous Romans’ or ‘Cities of Europe’) or one linked to their interests (‘Cutest Animals’ or ‘Deadliest Strikers’ in our house).

The joy of this task is that it doesn’t take long to make one card and once they know what they’re doing it is easy to get on with. They can keep coming back and making more whenever they have a spare moment (or whenever you need a spare moment!). And once you are back from whatever you’re doing, you’ll have a wonderful – and probably gloriously odd and inaccurate – homemade game to play.

3. Create a character

Helping your child invent a new character for a story is an easy way of setting something up that they can revisit independently later on. All they need to do is decide what their character is, what they are called, and what makes them special. For example, they could invent a rabbit called Flopsy who loves cooking; a superhero called Magma Man who can summon volcanoes; a very friendly but accident-prone bear called… hang on, that one might have been done before…

Once they’ve got a character, they can make up adventures for them. They might write a story, draw them in a picture, or put them in a comic strip (search online for a blank template). Once they know their character well and have created one story, it’s much easier for them to go away and independently make up another adventure next time. If you find them playing games involving their character, that’s when you know you’ve won!

4. Set up multiple activities

Back when my daughter was in Reception and we were dropping her off at school, we’d always peer into the classroom to see what delights had been set up by her wonderful teacher.

Each table had an activity already laid out – tables topped with toy animals and a habitat for them made of sticks, rocks, and leaves; a sand tray with toy diggers midway through carving out a new road; a water tray full of bottles, pots, and bubbles, with some old white shirts as lab coats for the scientists. The set up meant that my daughter could access all the activities independently, and she could play happily for hours.

A quick search online for ‘EYFS play activities’, or a look on Pinterest or Instagram, will give you hundreds of ideas for activities that will keep younger children engaged and learning while you get things done.

5. Use audiobooks

Sitting and listening to an audiobook is the perfect independent activity: it’s educational and it’s fun. You might have access to some at home, or you might want to look online, where you will find plenty.

If you’re feeling very organised, you could use your phone to record yourself reading a bedtime story (or better still, record your child reading to you). Then they can sit and look at the book accompanied by their very own personal audiobook.

6. Build a den

Pull the sofa out from the wall and build a roof with a pile of cushions, get two chairs and hang a duvet cover between them, or clear out a cupboard for an afternoon.

Not only is a camp a brilliant distraction in itself, but for some inexplicable reason even tasks that can be met with extreme reluctance are fun when you’re in the camp: ‘You’ve got twenty minutes in the den to make sure you know your spellings’ or ‘Go and practise your 9-times table in the camp’ has to be worth a try.

7. Start a jigsaw

Unashamedly old school, but if you’ve got space to leave out a complicated jigsaw that is going take few hours, it can provide a brilliant activity for everyone to dip back into every so often.

Obviously, completing the jigsaw is a reward in itself, but some friends of ours place a big bag of sweets on display next to the jigsaw for the family to share once it’s done. For some reason, the younger members of the household are suddenly very keen to help out…

Of course, what works in one household might not work in another. Every child is different and every parent will have different amounts of time and different resources to draw on. We must be careful to recognise our own reality and the things we’re trying to juggle. If life at the moment means that children end up watching a bit more TV than normal or spending a bit more time on the tablet than we’d like, we shouldn’t feel guilty: life is likely to be far from ideal and we’re all doing our best.