Ottawa

How your family can make the most of this time at home

Education experts and parents weigh in on how to handle this unexpectedly lengthy March Break.

Tips on home schooling, screen time and the importance of routine

Ellyn Hagerman, 9, uses an old Kleenex box to learn about volume during her extended March Break. (Submitted by Michelle Hagerman)

At Michelle Hagerman's home, the plan was to start slow after March Break.

After a week off from routine, the family of four talked about setting their alarms Monday morning and making a plan to pick a few activities for the day, sprinkled with exercise breaks. 

For Hagerman, it's important not to get too ambitious. 

"If I can get my nine-year-old to practise math for a little while every day, that's a win," she laughed.

Hagerman, who teaches educational psychology and technology at the University of Ottawa, is a mother of two children ages nine and 14. Like all students across the province, they're unexpectedly home instead of back in class. For how long is anyone's guess, after Premier Doug Ford confirmed Monday classes will not resume April 6 as originally planned.

Joel Westheimer teaches at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Education. (University of Ottawa)

The province has launched an online learning portal offering interactive courses for elementary and high school students.

Hagerman said the courses can be a useful tool to kick-start creative projects and establish routine for the family, but there's no need for parents to try to get through them all — or to try to become the teacher.

Ottawa Morning education columnist Joel Westheimer agrees. 

"Parents are not trained teachers. Sure, they can teach their kids certain things. But think of this as an opportunity to spend more time with kids doing things of interest to both of you," he said.

Westheimer suggests activities you might not always have time for, like baking a cake together or starting a craft.

Home school, again

In Stephanie Sewell's household in Chelsea, Que., this time off feels oddly familiar. The former schoolteacher and education consultant home-schooled her two kids, now 15 and 18, from the beginning. Her daughter started attending school a few years ago, and her son enrolled just last year.

Now that they're back home again, Sewell's son is having an easier time transitioning back to his old routine.

From left to right, Oliver Przednowek, Stephanie Sewell, Marek Przednowek and Julia Przednowek. Sewell says now is the time to spend less structured time with family and instead explore each other's passions, such as her 18-year-old son's love of cross-country skiing. (Submitted by Stephanie Sewell)

"I think it's really fair for kids to be given some time right now. It takes a while to let go of everything school was to you and to start thinking of your own activities or projects you want to do," Sewell said.

She's started a Facebook group called Unexpected Homeschooling — Parenting During the COVID-19 Pandemic, where she offers tips to other parents on how to tackle this challenge.

WATCH: Parents face homeschooling challenges during pandemic

With schools closed across Canada because of COVID-19, parents struggle to keep the learning going at home. 1:56

It's especially tricky for the many parents who are also juggling working from home. Sewell suggests creating a routine where parents start work before the kids are up, and resume during down time in the early afternoon. It can also help to trade off with your spouse.

If that doesn't work, Sewell's 15-year-old is offering an online babysitting service, reading stories and playing games with younger kids via video chat to earn some dollars while giving their parents time to get some work done.

Zoe Hagerman, 14, catches up with friends and does some online learning during this extended March Break. (Submitted by Michelle Hagerman)

Limiting screen time

One especially thorny issue for some parents is screen time, and figuring out how much is too much. Even the province's learning resources are online.

Sewell suggests making a distinction between e-learning and "fun" screen time. Joel Westheimer suggests setting limits on both.

"We know that endlessly surfing social media is a recipe for depression. Depression can lead to a reduced immune system, so we don't want to go there. Limiting screen time like you would in an evening, now you need to do it for the whole day," he advises.

Finish off your day of home-schooling with a fun activity like painting each other's nails, Michelle Hagerman suggests. (Submitted by Michelle Hagerman)

No two families will strike the same balance or find the perfect routine, but Hagerman says what matters most is that parents keep the big picture in mind.

"There's an entire cohort of children whose lives have been changed by this situation. There's no reason we can't pivot and shift now and when we get back in class, we'll pick up what we missed. It's important to think about what matters most, and to focus on kids' health and emotional well-being."

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