San Diego experts share how to keep kids healthy, learning during coronavirus school closures

Natalia Kulikova (right) and her children Kseniia (left), 8, and Andrei, 3, play with LEGOs at a library's LEGO Club on March 7, 2020; before public libraries were closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, Experts recommend parents have kids do stimulating, hands-on activities at home and have a daily routines during school closures.
Natalia Kulikova (right) and her children Kseniia (left), 8, and Andrei, 3, play with LEGOs at a library’s LEGO Club on March 7, 2020; before public libraries were closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, Experts recommend parents have kids do stimulating, hands-on activities at home and have a daily routines during school closures.
(Photo by Raul Roa)

Children’s health experts warn against too much screen time, encourage setting a daily routine


With so many schools closed, many parents have a tough job: figuring out what their kids should be doing at home all day.

Three local experts offer recommendations about what parents should do when home-schooling and taking care of their kids.

Alison Wishard Guerra is education studies associate professor at UC San Diego. Joelle Donofrio-Odmann is emergency medical services director at Rady Children’s Hospital. And Gedeon Deak is director of the Cognitive Development Lab at UC San Diego.

In addition to losing several weeks of academic learning, children will likely bear an emotional toll from the school closures and social distancing, Guerra said.

“This is very stressful for children, as it’s very stressful for adults,” Guerra said. “In this time, it’s really important to attend to helping children feel secure and safe in their family relationships.”

Children will be cut off from their friends, classmates and teachers, so it is important for parents to allow ways for children to continue socializing, which is crucial for children’s development, Donofrio-Odmann said.

Set daily routines

All three experts said one of the best things parents can do right now is to set a daily routine. The experts said daily routines should have a mix of learning activities, physical activities and recreational activities.

“The routine to the home school day is going to be really important, both for creating space and habit for doing that schoolwork,” Guerra said. “It can help children feel more secure because they know what’s going to happen next.”

Deak, at the Cognitive Development Lab at UCSD, said parents should be realistic about what they can accomplish each day and not overload their schedules, considering that families are in all kinds of situations regarding work, family income and their children’s developmental needs.

Should you home-school now?

Experts say parents shouldn’t feel they have to replace their child’s teacher. Most parents are not equipped to provide education the way schools are, Deak said.

Guerra said parents should focus first on making sure their children feel safe and that their basic needs are taken care of. “My advice to parents is to be a parent first and nurture your child’s emotional well-being,” Guerra said.

Parents also don’t have to provide six hours of constant learning at home to replace school, Guerra said.

What schools normally do in a six-hour day can be done in two hours at home, she said, because school day schedules consist of other things besides learning, such as recess, lunch and class transitions, and parents can often give more one-on-one attention than teachers can.

Also kids learn best when they drive their own learning, rather than adults, Guerra said. “Creating safe spaces for children to become bored and become comfortable with taking charge of their own learning can be good for their cognitive development and academic development,” she said.

Activities for families

This is a great time for family time, Donofrio-Odmann said. “Dust off the board game, cook together, tell stories, arts and crafts, building blocks with Legos... Get your hands out, get your imagination out, and play. Do hands-on skills at home that require thought,” she said.

State officials have advised against holding in-person children’s play dates, so experts suggested using video conferencing tools like Facetime to connect children with family members or friends.

Guerra suggested parents share stories with their children, as that helps boost their literacy.

Guerra said she highly recommends young children play with low-tech toys like building blocks or Legos, which allow them to practice skills that use the executive function of their brains.

Donofrio-Odmann pointed to previously exclusive arts and educational resources that can now be accessed online. For example, she mentioned that the Metroplitan Opera is offering free video recordings of its performances and several museums are offering free virtual tours in lieu of allowing in visitors.

Limiting screen time

Schools are turning to online activities and TV to fill learning gaps left by the school closures.

San Diego Unified announced a partnership with KPBS this week to offer 12 hours of educational TV programming daily, while several districts are directing families to websites where they can find lesson plans, educational videos and more.

But Guerra warned that too much screen time can be harmful — even if it’s educational screen time.

“This is the time when families and kids are developing a new routine and new habits, and it can be easy for adults to fall into the habit of watching the news 24/7 and watching Netflix 24/7 because we’re filling a void of our normal routine. That could be dangerous,” Guerra said.

“A lot of families I know are filling up the void with technology, and I would caution against doing that. Of course we’re using a lot of technology to do the virtual learning, but children don’t need to be occupied every moment of every day.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children 2 to 5 years old have no more than one hour of screen time daily — for high-quality programs only. For children 6 and older, parents should “place consistent limits” on screen time.

Parents should give their kids “safe space to be bored,” Guerra said, and have their kids figure out how to entertain themselves, rather than always consuming digital content passively.

For example, she held a family meeting with her own daughters, who decided to start their own photography and family history projects to pass the time.

Going outdoors

As long as you can maintain social distancing, experts recommended spending time outdoors to avoid being cooped up.

“If you can be a distance of six feet away and you’re not touching a bunch of, like, snotty handbars, this a great time for the outdoors,” Donofrio-Odmann said.

Experts suggested going hiking, going to the beach, taking nature walks around the neighborhood, or taking impromptu local field trips. Outdoor activities benefit everybody’s health, Donofrio-Odmann said.