"Traveling" with Children While Self-Isolating
My latest article in The Observer is about how I'm "traveling" with and teaching my children during this bizarre Corona-time period of self-isolation. The original article is here. As with most articles, the final one is shorter and worked over with editors. But for the "director's cut," you can read on below. May you enjoy and benefit from this time with your children "stuck" at home. We'll look back on it as precious in the future, once the virus has passed.
During this surreal time of self-isolation, when I’ve been at home for 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 stationary bonding time. I must say that this is not all that different from our normal routine—my wife is a translator and I wear many hats but mostly write and edit from home, so we are used to being all together at our house in Slovenia, where I’ve lived for more than a decade. The tricky part is not being able to leave and having our children with us full-time. Our younger daughter is still in kindergarten, so has no work assigned, but we have to home-school 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 is enthusiastic about teaching my kids at every opportunity, I’ve been thinking of this period as a bonus, not a chore. It is also a challenge, because my girls are in the unicorn and slide phase, with 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 home-schooling, 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 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 time, 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 tend not to notice outside of this time of isolation. Every day my girls and I take a virtual tour of a different museum or landmark. The Georgia Aquarium, the Natural History Museum (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. Below you’ll find a list of tours that I’ve already done and recommend, including links. 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. 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.
Ideas and Links
Painting with the legendary Bob Ross.
Woodworking with Paul Sellers, the “Bob Ross of woodworking”
Knit with a child who teaches you
Tracking animals in the snow