The potential loss could require some children to repeat a grade. However, play with family members can stem decline and support parental mental health.

We should pay extra attention to the home schooling and care of disadvantaged children during the Covid-19 crisis. Their potential loss of learning could require that some students repeat an entire grade. However, play with families, as well as government help with computer access, can help mitigate the damage.

These students are at particular risk of a ‘Covid-19 slump’ in learning compared with their middle-income peers. Addressing this danger demands government action to improve access to laptops and the internet. Parents and extended families can also help by marshalling unrealized capacities to play with and stimulate children, even while they are cooped up at home, with no museums, no park and little outside space.

Grandparents can play with children virtually

Grandparents can give parents a break by video chatting with young children to read them a story. Research shows that it works almost as well as reading in person. They can also get out the building blocks that many grandparents have at home, and young children can match what they are making at the other end – that’s good for STEM skills. At a distance, they can still create puzzles, a quiz, play games, or even visit a museum virtually and try to find an exhibit, like in the movie “National Treasure.”

At home, parents have options even in confined space. There’s building a fort in the living room, ‘hide and seek’ and organizing a treasure hunt. A bucket of soapy water, a sponge, and something to clean can keep a three-year-old entertained. Even a tiny outside space can let children to search for five sticks, different leaves left in the fall, or what’s hidden behind a blade of grass.

Cook with your child – it’s like doing chemistry – or plant something and learn about nature; learn a new word every week. Playing a board game combines lots of learning – giving everyone a turn teaches the social graces. Count the squares – that’s math. Explaining rules and moves offers language practice.

You can make daily walks more stimulating for children. In many neighborhoods, homes have put teddies in their front window so kids can go on a bear hunt. You can chalk a hopscotch court on your sidewalk for passers-by and leave a message asking children to spot something hidden outside your home.

Covid-19 slump could be worse than summer slump

We’ve known about a ‘summer slump’, experienced particularly by disadvantaged students compared with their wealthier peers, that occurs during just a couple of months of vacation. But the summer slump could be minor compared with no classes from now until at least September.

During the US summer vacation, following third grade, students lose, on average, nearly 20 per cent of their school-year gains in reading and 27 per cent of their school-year gains in math. Research shows that the loss increases with age: after seventh grade, students lose on average 36 per cent of their school-year gains in reading and 50 per cent in math.

However, these figures mask inequalities in impact: learning among most middle-class children doesn’t plummet in this way for many reasons. Typically, better-off families retain a schedule and can provide interesting summer travel. Their children are sent to soccer, drama and computer camps. They continue to read at home. Adults are often available, talking to them, playing, sharing activities. It’s not the same in homes where parents might be working two or three jobs and families don’t have diverse childcare options, or money for trips and camps.

Covid-19 is multiplying pressures on these families, bringing additional job insecurity and money worries as cramped homes are shared for homework that parents may feel ill-equipped to support. And whereas those families who lack connectivity might, before the epidemic, have gone to a coffee shop for internet access, such places are now closed.

Play with children helps stressed adults too

Playing isn’t just good for the kids – it can help parents who are stressed by extra burdens as they struggle to switch off, trying to stay on top of work at home, while schooling and feeding the children in small spaces. Reading a story can help the adults too: many of us can remember falling asleep reading to a child. That’s because it relaxes us as well, as confirmed by skin arousal tests we’ve done in the lab. The US Association for Psychological Science is urging parents, during the epidemic, ‘to care for your own mental health, because your mental health can have an impact on your kids’.

Many of these recommendations require a concerted attempt to end the digital divide and ensure that children can connect to learning opportunities. We can take a lesson from Plan Ceibal, an initiative which has ensured that every child in public education has a computer for personal use with a free internet connection and educational resources. When Covid-19 hit Uruguay, even families on very low incomes were ready with what they needed to switch to learning at home.

Header photo: Dan Gaken. Creative Commons.