During this surreal time of social isolation, when I’ve been at home since mid-March with my wife, 5- and 7-year-old daughters and hairless dog (really), I’ve been thinking about how to best use this unexpected bonding time. Our younger daughter is still in kindergarten, so has no work assigned, but we have to homeschool our older daughter, a low-key affair as she’s in her first year of elementary school, but it’s a new routine all the same.
As a professor of art history, and someone who often tries to find inventive ways to help my kids learn, I’ve been trying to think of this period as a bonus. It is also a challenge; my girls are in the phase where their main interests are unicorns and slides, and have limited patience for activities beyond what you’d imagine a 5- and 7-year-old would be into. I also have enormous respect for early childhood educators—I teach university level and higher, and my patience for the dynamic with my own young kids, when it comes to homeschooling, is shamefully limited. I mean to say that I may be a professor and enthusiastic teacher, but I don’t feel any “better” at this than anyone else, when it comes to my own family.
But this time has allowed me to put into concentrated, organized action a master plan, which I call The Lesson Plan (with caps to make it seem more official). For a few years now I’ve been selecting a single, low-key lesson each day to teach my girls. It is often so simple that it isn’t even really a lesson proper: we’ll read a single entry in a children’s encyclopedia, or chat about how the dinosaurs went extinct, or I’ll explain what a telephone booth is (and why they went extinct). Sometimes it’s a classic video clip (the “stateroom scene” from The Marx Brothers, the “fish slap dance” from Monty Python or “Make’Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain). I’m always careful to stop before this interaction feels too “lesson-y,” to keep it fun and interactive, asking lots of questions and giving my full attention. Then I reward the girls by following it up by doing whatever they want to play (screens excluded) for 15 minutes.
It works really well, and can be tailored to any family, any interests, and any age group. But now, in isolation, and with many more hours to fill with my girls, I’ve shifted to a version of “traveling” on gently educational virtual trips as a way to engage, teach and expand the feeling of the limited floorspace that we can navigate.
There is a world of virtual tours available, some newly so—a nod to the current situation in which places that once relied on paid tickets have made virtual tours available for free. Others are regularly free, but we perhaps notice them more now that the physical locations are off limits. Every day, my girls and I take a virtual tour of a different museum or landmark. The Georgia Aquarium, the Natural History Museums (in DC, New York and London—my girls are into dinosaurs), the British Museum, the Musee d’Orsay, the Vatican Museums, to name a few. And Machu Picchu, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China.
Some are official websites or tours, others are simply walkthroughs made and uploaded by tourists. The key is to make the experience deeper and more engaged and educational by talking about what you will see ahead of time, to whet the interest—we’ll find the location on a globe and maybe zoom into it via Google Earth. Then we talk during it, asking lots of questions (what do you see, what looks beautiful to you, what’s the most interesting thing, would you do this yourself?). Then talking about it afterwards, which helps them remember and internalize what we saw and learned.
By way of example, our “tour” of the world’s largest aquarium (in Atlanta, Georgia) was courtesy of a random, amateur teenager with a good camera, uploaded to YouTube. We talked about what we had seen at an aquarium in person when we went in Vienna last October, what we were hoping we’d see in this video tour. During the tour, we peppered questions and encouraged dialogue: which fish is the most beautiful, can you find a yellow-tailed fish, do you see any fish that was in Finding Dory, which is cuter a penguin or a seal, and so on. I don’t worry about the weight or actual educational value of the questions and there are no wrong answers, really. It’s about together-time, focusing on something cultural and/or new, engaging with full attention (no parents playing with phones), and feeling a sense of access to a world broader than the current isolating climate.
To keep my girls entertained we chat throughout the virtual tours, mostly asking them about what they see, what they find interesting. If they’re up for 15 minutes, that’s great. If longer, also great. I always try to stop before they get bored, so to keep it a positive experience. Their attention span is narrow, but if something is interesting, it is interesting.
This sort of activity will go a long way to not only feeling immersed in art and culture during this time, and feeling productive instead of entirely passive, but it also feels expansive. You can “travel” beyond the walls of your home, which is a good way to avoid cabin fever.
Landmarks and Museums Free to ‘Tour’:
Christ the Redeemer
The Georgia Aquarium
Natural History Museum, Washington DC
Winchester Mystery House
Natural History Museum, London
Natural History Museum, New York
National Gallery, London
the British Museum
the Vatican Museums
the Musee d’Orsay