Picks

I Home-School My Kids

Here’s what keeps them occupied.

ColorKu Mad Cave Bird Games.
Photo illustration by Slate

With schools across the country closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, parents are finding themselves stepping tentatively into the role of “teacher.” I home-school my three boys, ages 3, 5, and 7, and as I discuss at length this week in Slate’s parenting podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, I regularly lean on a number of activities, toys, and apps to keep my other kids occupied while we have one-on-one instruction time, or when I need some quiet time to do work of my own. Here are some of my favorite tried and true tools to keep my kids educationally entertained.

Preschoolers and Kindergartners

Learning Resources Mini Muffin Match Up

This little muffin tin game offers so many variations and options, from sorting muffins by color to practicing to count. The included tweezers help hone kids’ fine motor skills as they place the colored muffins into different cups in the tin. It’s great for free play, too.

Lacing Cards or Beads 

These are wonderful hands-on activities for preschoolers. While you can certainly turn these into a lesson, you can also set up your child nearby to practice their hand-eye coordination while you have that conference call. This set of glow-in-the-dark constellation lacing cards even wins over my 7-year-old.

Magnetic Dress Up 

Robots, superheroes, and animal friends make for mix-’n’-match fun. The sturdy magnetic bodies allow these toys to be played with year after year.

Story Pirates Podcast 

Preschoolers have a soft spot for zany stories and silly songs, and yours will love Story Pirates, a podcast that can offer a nice change of pace during the day. You can even use it to entice your kids to lay down for some quiet time.

Montessori Preschool App From Edoki Academy 

Great activities and seasonal themes make time on the tablet amusing and educational. The app’s intuitive navigation means kids can find the activities they love while bothering you less.

Teach Your Monster to Read From Usborne 

Teach Your Monster to Read helps your child graduate from making letter sounds to reading full sentences. Usborne is offering it free during the COVID-19 school hiatus. It is perfect for those who are learning to read.

Elementary School Kids

Summer Brain Quest Workbooks 

Summer Brain Quest workbooks are packed full of activities, exercises, and games that cover common core skills. The books come with pull-out maps and stickers to track their progress and motivate your child. Additional activities (for more stickers) encourage kids to apply what they are learning. Books also come with a suggested reading list.

Osmo 

Osmo combines tablet learning with hand-held objects, making games—on subjects like math, spelling, and even coding—more interactive. Osmo Detective Agency can occupy several kids at once, as they solve mysteries together by looking for clues on the game board. It doesn’t take long for your kids to get the hang of these games, and once they do, Osmo offers hours of entertainment.

Mad Libs

Who doesn’t love the crazy stories you can create with Mad Libs? And it’s excellent for kids who are practicing parts of speech. Check out Mad Libs Jr. for the younger set. Over dinner or during a break from work, encourage your kids to read you their zaniest story.

Paint by Sticker 

Paint by Sticker is a much less messy version of paint by numbers. These sticker books come in a variety of themes from more advanced and educational masterpieces and music icons to easier zoo animals.

My First Story Writing Book 

Encourage creative writing with cute prompts on a variety of themes.

MathTango 

This app offers your kids an entertaining way to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Middle Schoolers

I don’t have a middle schooler yet, but my best friend is a middle school teacher. She recommends these great choices, many of which we already have in our house for guided use with my 7-year-old.

ColorKu Mad Cave Bird Games

This logic-based placement puzzle uses colorful wooden balls to solve sudoku puzzles. It keeps kids entertained while allowing them to practice their problem-solving skills.

Ultimate Dot to Dot

These challenging dot-to-dot puzzles combat boredom while your kid watches intricate designs emerge as they search for the next number. Perforated pages allow one book to entertain multiple kids at once.

Perplexors Puzzle Books

Solve these story logic problems as a group or on your own.

Stop Motion Apps

A variety of apps—like Stop Motion Studio for Apple and Android—can turn your smartphone into a stop-animation camera. The creative options here are endless, and your whole family can enjoy the fruits of your kid’s labor.

Nitro Type

Help your middle schooler improve their typing skills through a competitive online racing game—the faster they type, the faster their car goes. They are likely to find it addictive.

All Ages

Lunch Doodles With Mo Willems 

This free video series from beloved children’s author Mo Willems, produced in conjunction with the Kennedy Center, is educational and entertaining for kids of all ages. Willems talks about the creative process and teaches kids how to draw some of his most famous characters. My kids love watching him draw and chat like he is right there in the room. New videos are posted weekday afternoons at 1 p.m., but are available to view anytime via this YouTube playlist.

The Cincinnati Zoo Presents Home Safari

This Facebook Live series from the Cincinnati Zoo highlights an amazing animal and includes an activity to do from home. This week, my kids learned about porcupines, met sweet Rico, and used playdough and some toothpicks to make their own porcupine.

Outschool 

Outschool offers small online classes for every age on a variety of topics. Some classes are “live” while others are asynchronous and self-paced. Outschool is a wonderful option for art and music or more advanced courses you don’t want to prep yourself. There are also plenty of one-time classes if you need something to keep your kids busy for a while.

Online Junior Ranger Badges 

While traveling is currently out of the question, kids can still explore National Parks online and earn badges. For example, the Aztec Ruins Junior Ranger Program allows kids to watch videos and complete activities to earn an actual badge that they receive in the mail.

Storyline

On Storyline, celebrities read aloud popular children’s books, which are lightly animated. A perfect way to drop some guilt and keep the kids occupied.

Working and schooling from home at the same time and in the same space is difficult. I’m feeling it too! I’m unabashedly allowing more screen time and unstructured free play to grab some downtime for myself. (And the cleanliness of our house is paying for it!) It looks like we are going to be here awhile, so take some time and settle in. If you need support, come join us in the Slate Parenting Facebook group. You might also want to check out Slate’s Ask a Teacher columnist Carrie Bauer’s tips for how to navigate these uncharted waters.

For more tips on what to do with your kids, listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.