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Usable Knowledge

Creative Connections While Apart

Ways to come together as families, schools, and communities while keeping your (social) distance
sidewalk chalk message saying "welcome to our street"

School closures and a call for social distancing have left parents and caregivers with all sorts of questions about what activities are still safe to do — and how to keep children socially and emotionally connected to the wider world, even at a distance.

Making choices to stay apart every day is a key to slowing the spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19, according to Dan Schwarz, director of primary health care at Ariadne Labs and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. Schwarz offered concrete tips on social distancing for children and families, advising not to participate in “playdates, parties, or sleepovers,” and “avoid families and friends visiting each other’s houses and apartments.”

Yet despite the need for physical distance, it’s still important to find creative ways for children to maintain social connection with friends, teachers, classmates, and extended family.

Professor Richard Weissbourd stressed the significance of children connecting in positive ways. “Isolation can breed anxiety,” he said. “This is also a great time for kids to learn how to support each other during stressful times. Some kids will need guidance in providing that support."

We asked HGSE faculty and staff to share creative ways they are connecting.

Video recess

Professor James Kim asked the principal of his elementary-aged children to do a “video recess” during the day. “We set up a Zoom call for each of my kids' classes,” Kim said. “It is wildly popular. They were able to see their friends, talk about small, goofy stuff, and practice turn-taking in a group discussion.”

Fun online workouts with favorite characters

Kim has also taken to doing character-inspired workouts with his children to keep them moving. Star Wars is the preferred workout in his household, but there are plenty of different character- and movie-inspired workout ideas online.

Virtual story time with grandparents

Harvard EdCast host Jill Anderson arranges virtual story time lunches with grandparents for her child as often as possible.

Virtual family charades and gatherings

Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson connected her children with 22 family members across six locations in Canada and the United States for a game of charades.

“We took turns acting out the charades our kids had put together, such as smelly socks, social distancing, along with some other inside family jokes and memories,” Peterson said. “Inspired by their great aunt and uncle who wore funny hats to this first party, our next virtual gathering will have a Mad Hatter theme. Take any materials you can find in your house (where else would we go?) and make a hat to wear to the virtual party!”

Virtual playdates and school spirit weeks

For their very social 11-year-old child, Professors Heather Hill and Jon Star have been arranging daily virtual playdates through Zoom. “It’s been a lifesaver for our child,” Hill said, noting that their high school children regularly use FaceTime to connect to friends.

A standing Zoom call — seven days a week — is keeping Usable Knowledge editor Bari Walsh’s 13-year-old son connected to three of his good friends. They are playing a collaborative Minecraft game — talking strategy, learning new moves, and connecting in ways that matter to them.

Technology is allowing so many opportunities to stay in touch for kids of many ages; a friend’s college-age daughter is using Facetime to watch movies and have dinner alongside her now-distant boyfriend. But connections with friends can be more low-tech too. Kids of Walsh’s friends are using FaceTime to play analog games together — one neighbor’s child is playing Battleship with her friend — and to draw pictures, make crafts, and cook together.

And parent-teacher associations — such as the one at the middle school in Melrose, Massachusetts — are sponsoring virtual spirit weeks during which students (and families) can post pictures showing their school pride, or celebrating themes such as Pajama Day or Crazy Hat Day.

Ways to connect offline

Hill reminds that while some of us are privileged with access to different technology — that isn’t the case for many families.

But not all attempts at “connecting” require online technology or the Internet. Robin Kane, assistant director of professional institutes and partnerships at the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative, recommended the simple act of looking at pictures with children, sharing stories of good times together from the past, making cards and letters for friends and mailing them, or talking on the phone. 

In Boston and elsewhere, sidewalk chalk messages are cropping up — kids leaving notes in front of friends’ houses. On Walsh’s street, families are leaving notes to thank mail- and food-delivery workers, too. And neighbors are planning a “porchfest” one weekend day, when the weather gets better — with neighbors on one side of the street waving and chatting from their front stoops or porches while neighbors from the other side of the street stroll by, and then reversing the order the following weekend.

Usable Knowledge

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