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4 Lessons Remote Learning Has Taught Us (and How Play Can Help)

2020-09-23 by Dr. Jenny
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Hello from distance learning land! My kids have started 2nd and 5th grade through Chrome books, sitting at their desks with headphones on, sometimes synchronous with teachers and peers, sometimes not (and sometimes distracted by YouTube). It’s going . . .well . . . fine. I can tell the teachers have worked really hard to prepare and engage kids, but the truth is a lot of these tech products just weren’t designed with young kids in mind. If you have a young child, you’ve probably witnessed first-hand how imperfect distance learning is.


But we don’t need perfect. Right now, in this stressful moment we are living in, we need good enough. We need a way to keep our kids involved in a learning community and exposed to new ideas in a structured and supported way (rather than leaving it to YouTube recommendations to determine what our kids watch next!). We need our kids having some collective experiences with classmates over video chat, and then reading good books, listening to audiobooks, or using media that increases their wonder about nature, culture, or history.

What can we, as parents, learn about technology’s imperfections from this moment? How can we get over any negative feelings about extra “screen time” and instead build insight into the strengths and limitations of tech for teaching our kids? Here are some reflections I’ve had over the first few weeks of school, with play activity ideas to round out kids’ days.

Lesson 1: Zoom, Google Meet, and all the video chat platforms can’t replace circle time.

Zoom was created for grown-ups to meet together, not kids. I mean, where is the white board? Or fidgets? Or laps to snuggle into? Kids may be able to make each other laugh through silly chat comments or scavenger hunts, but it’s not the same as sitting amongst a bunch of other little bodies. It’s a bit harder for kids to make eye contact and have a flowing conversation over video, and this can make the experience feel stilted.

How Play Can Help: Circle time helps kids look around at everyone else, pick up on their social cues, listen and respond, to be part of a group activity. There are tons of play activities that do this too: arrange a picnic or tea party, break out a board game, start a sing-along, or make music together where you change up the beat and copy each other. The point is to give kids an outlet for real-life connection, reading and responding to someone else’s social cues in real-time.


Lesson 2: Recess is hard to replicate.

Recess is crucial, either for group play – where kids have to adapt dynamically to one another – or a little solitude, finding peace underneath a play structure. These unscripted experiences are important so that kids have the time and space to write their own script, making their own meaning out of life. Children need a safe space to explore and fail (unlike messing around on the internet, where there is plenty of creepy stuff to encounter!).

How Play Can Help: Organize outdoor get-togethers with other kids, at playgrounds if OK with public health rules in your area, in meadows, or in the woods. Let kids make their own hiding spots in your apartment or design a new world with sidewalk chalk. The most important thing is hanging back and letting the kids make it up.


Lesson 3: Kids shouldn’t be following prompts all day.

After marching through a schedule of tasks to do, online worksheets to complete, or instructions to follow, there needs to be some time when kids’ brains get some downtime.

How Play Can Help: Let them be bored — oh man, are we going to have a lot of boredom in the coming months! Challenge kids to work through boredom, figure out what to do on their own (they may need to run it by you to make sure it’s safe), and not have to rely on grown-ups for ideas.


Lesson 4: After a day on tech, kids (just like parents) can be a little fried.

You may need to get them to stretch, take a walk around the block, or play with an animal to reset their brains. Encourage multisensory experiences, too — touching and feeling objects, experiencing the smells and sounds of nature you can’t get through headphones or touchscreens.

How Play Can Help: Many natural sources of resilience are screen-free and involve our senses. Watching birds or animals, listening to nature, baking a treat, or going on a neighborhood walk to unwind from the day are all examples, but talk to your kids about which senses help their mind and body calm down, and choose a few to do every day.


Like me, you might be a working parent who is feeling like time is evaporating before your eyes since school started. You might have no partner at home, or a very busy one and lots of little ones to organize and care for. Don’t expect that you can invent new ideas every school day. Write down a few ideas, try to stick with a routine, and go easy on yourself. Celebrate whatever little victories come your way!

In Case You Missed It
This blog post is part of our “Families and Tech During COVID-19 series in the Stuck Inside Guide. The goal is to help parents think about and choose healthier digital media and play experiences for their kids, and avoid the tech that’s not worth your child’s time.

Part 1: Introducing a New Series on Families and Tech During COVID-19

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.


Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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