Promoting Summer Growth in a Time of Social Distancing

Raising children in the midst of a pandemic is not a skill that comes readily for most. Parents and caregivers have had to enact a wide range of modifications to daily life as our communities, large and small, have responded to COVID-19. Many families have found themselves acclimating to new realities, often at breakneck speed, as the past few months have unfolded, and many are now looking to equip themselves and their children for the road we all face ahead.

As families have continued to adapt and pivot where needed to create new structures, schedules, routines and rules, there are, not surprisingly, a range of experiences noted. I hear from some who are enjoying the simpler things a bit more while they embrace a new, less hurried way of being as a result of calendars stripped of many of the demands associated with school, athletic and performing arts practices and social obligations. Some seem to have found a comfortable middle ground of accepting the changes that have come their way for the most part, yet still longing for a return to their former life in some ways. Others greatly lament the loss of their pre-COVID lifestyle and may be troubled when envisioning a summer without camps, travel and large social gatherings. Wherever you may find yourself along this spectrum, you likely still aspire to continued success, happiness, health and well-being for your children during this time, and you hope for them to emerge as stronger and more resilient individuals and members of society post-pandemic.

During a recent Zoom meeting with the Lower School Parent Education committee, one parent proposed the idea of a virtual parent “coffee” on the topic of promoting summer growth in children during this time of social distancing. With our JK-12 distance learning model fully in place this spring, we followed our teachers’ and students’ lead with Zoom as our platform for this parent gathering, and we asked each participant to brew their own favorite morning beverage and join us for a virtual interactive panel discussion on this topic. To our pleasant surprise, we had the largest attendance to date for the live online parent education session, and additional families were able to view the recorded version at a later date. Given the success of this session and format, we’ve already begun conversations about how to maximize the potential of this type of meeting in the months and years to come.

The Lower School Parent Education Zoom panel included Head of Lower School Amy Scheer, Junior Kindergarten Teacher and Early Childhood Curriculum Coordinator Bridget Wallace, Fourth Grade Teacher and Elementary Grades Curriculum Coordinator Donna Waters and me, Lower School Learning Specialist and Counselor Ashley O’Toole. We discussed a variety of ways to keep children engaged and growing throughout the summer. These recommendations were framed within four key areas – academic, social, emotional and physical – and some key takeaways from the discussion are outlined below.

Academic Development

  • Read to and with your child daily to help cultivate a habit of and a love for reading. Consider signing up for a summer reading challenge through a library or bookstore. Utilize public libraries and audiobook websites/apps to keep a steady flow of books available to read at all times. 
  • Model how to keep a journal about experiences and feelings. Write a short story or book about a summer memory. Write a letter to a family member or friend. Encourage your child to include drawings, artwork or photographs to illustrate and correspond with their writing.
  • Aim to experience nature and the outdoor world in some capacity each day. Help your child engage in reflections (in verbal, written and artistic forms) and experiments to learn more about the world around them.
  • Practice math facts consistently through fun and interactive quizzes, games or daily activities, including cooking, nature walks, sports and physical activities.

Social Development

  • Celebrate the old and create some new family traditions that bring everyone together – for example, a no-technology day, “try something new” day, game night, talent show, neighborhood walks or bike rides, backyard camping, community service projects, a “family funnies” or quote book, or a happiness/gratitude jar filled with written notes from family members. 
  • Activate your child’s innate desire to find meaning, purpose and contribution to a social group (i.e., your family) by planning chores and responsibilities for each family member. Provide some options that may work well, and allow your child to choose from them, or you may also ask your child what they think that they could do to help out the family/home. Frame this conversation by sharing about the various ways in which families help and take care of each other, especially in light of your own family values (i.e., “We are the type of family who…” and “You are the type of person who embodies/practices/stands for…”).
  • Remain flexible and encourage creativity in ways for children to connect socially with others during this time. A few examples may include in-person social-distancing play dates outside, parades and drive-by celebrations; virtual/video conferencing gatherings to play games, share stories and jokes, do a workout or sport together, play an online video game, or watch a movie together; and good old-fashioned letter (or email) writing, perhaps with pictures and drawings, to friends and family members. 
  • Remember that developing a healthy social life also involves introspection and alone time. Do not feel compelled to schedule a full daily slate of activities for your child to fill every minute of their day. Let your child wrangle with feeling bored every now and then, as the sparks of creativity often emerge from boredom.

Emotional Development

  • Help your child process and respond to their emotions regularly, which can be especially beneficial during times of uncertainty and unease. Ask broad questions about how your child is feeling or what they are thinking. Then watch and listen with an open mind. Pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal information shared, and validate their thoughts and feelings. 
  • Provide guidance to help children name their feelings/emotions. The current times may bring a sense of confusion for children about how they feel and how to respond, and that’s okay. Let them know that this is typical and that sometimes people have multiple feelings all at once. Consider sharing a time when you may have felt this way too. Give them the emotional vocabulary to help make sense of big or complex emotions.
  • Engage in frequent conversations as a family about others’ needs and those of oneself, which will help students develop interpersonal as well as intrapersonal knowledge, empathy, and compassion.
  • Share resources with your child to help with their emotional development, including children’s literature. Once you understand the questions and perspectives of your child, you can choose books that may help broaden their understandings. If you need some suggestions for appropriate books, any educator or librarian would be happy to help. 

Physical Development

  • Create multiple opportunities each day for your child to engage in high-energy physical activity that promotes muscle, bone and cardiovascular health, along with improvements in motor coordination, cognitive performance, sleep and behavior.
  • Play outside and inside in structured and unstructured ways with your children – for example, jumping rope, doing hopscotch, playing catch, engaging in sports, riding bikes, running races. Have them join you in a kid-friendly version of your favorite workout.
  • Facilitate your child’s physical activity with peers by helping them to create outdoor scavenger hunts or obstacle courses for siblings. Or help them set up Zoom workouts or dance parties with their friends in which each child takes turns leading a class.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active on their own by continuing to practice the exercises and workouts shared by our PE teachers during distance learning. Remember that 60 minutes of physical activity per day is the minimum goal. 

A question that many parents are asking at this time is some version of this: “How can I ensure that my child doesn’t fall behind this summer and is ready for the next grade level in the fall?” or “How is ‘summer slide’ or ’COVID slide’ going to impact my child’s educational future?” While it is certainly understandable that these questions and concerns would be top-of-mind at the moment, I would implore us to ask the following question instead: “What are the foundational tenets of learning and healthy child development that remain true regardless of circumstance, and how can we hold fast to those during this time?”

We know that children change and grow in a variety of ways depending on a whole host of contextual variables. We also know that we can teach them a set of academic skills at any point in their educational journey, and if they lack a secure base in the social, emotional and physical building blocks that adjoin and undergird their overall development, then those academic skills will not take hold. This is why we focus so heavily on essential developmental skills across all content areas within our Lower School program. We know that with a firm base rooted in the essentials, a child will go on to blossom and flourish in any domain upon which they set their heart and their mind. That is the spirit of a Beasley education, and we remain dedicated to its pursuit. Our call as educators and parents who raise and help shape the lives of children is to continue to build in each one an unshakable core, now more than ever.