It Takes a Virtual Village

How a community can entertain and educate kids in the age of social distancing.

Posted Mar 20, 2020

It takes a village, or so the saying goes. But in these surreal days of self-quarantine and social distancing, the thought of mustering the resources of a village to help raise healthy children may seem like a chimera—or worse, malpractice! But that needn’t be so. We’ve got the internet, after all, and if you’re anything like me, the past week or so has been something of a crash-course in the plethora of web-based platforms a mere tap and click away. Perhaps it’s time to update the proverb and appeal to a virtual village.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

That’s just what our group of friends has been doing. Three days in and this experiment in housebound community-building is showing a great deal of promise. Each afternoon at around 3:30 p.m., our kids enter the “Zoom-Zoom Room,” as we’ve come to call it, and their faces light up. They get to say “hi” to and joke with their friends from just down the street and across town. But the benefits go well beyond socializing and playtime.

Each day, one of us parents volunteers to lead them in a “lesson”—a semi-structured activity with an educational purpose. The lessons are pitched at various levels, because we have a variety of ages in the group (5-11 years old), and they play to each of our strengths. We’ve already had philosophy (see below), English, and music lessons; we’ve got history and art lessons on the docket.

As it turns out, most of the parents in our group are educators—university professors or school teachers—but that’s not a prerequisite. Everyone has something to impart to the next generation (hence the proverb): a cooking lesson, a power-tool demonstration, an interactive storytime. The possibilities are endless. The point is to give the kids time to have fun with each other while learning something, too.

With schools closed across the globe, parents are understandably concerned about their kids’ educational progress. Now, there’s good reason to take a deep breath and not blow things out of proportion. And there are many solid recommendations to consider, including a host of academic sites to turn to for educational content.

But one thing that online learning often lacks is a sense of community, familiarity, and interpersonal engagement. This is a unique advantage of an exercise like the one described above. The kids are learning from a flesh-and-blood person (on a screen), and it’s a familiar, friendly face that’s leading them through the learning exercise. They’re getting to interact with their peers and adult members of their social group. This is an important part of self-care in these times. And the time isn’t simply spent doing math or spelling exercises. It’s educational, but it feels more like playtime.

These sessions check off important boxes other than educational and social enrichment for the kids. For one thing, they’re appropriately “distant”—everyone participates from home. There’s no sharing germs. They’re also scheduled at a time of day when household responsibilities, such as preparing dinner or folding laundry, tend to be pressing.

Parents aren’t just concerned about how our kids won’t fall behind educationally; we’re concerned about how to feed them and dress them in clean clothes. This takes time, and one way to help each other out is for one adult to occupy everyone’s kids for an hour or so and let the rest do their chores. Or not. Even parents need a moment to relax and catch our breath. Instead of cooking dinner, we can take some time to exercise, nap, or shower. A community, even a virtual one, pools its resources to the benefit of all. This is as true in the midst of a pandemic as it is at any other time.

Our current circumstances don’t have to preclude all the trappings of normalcy. We can still have face time with friends and continued learning. It just takes a bit of creativity and flexibility. It also calls for empathy and sensitivity to the variety of circumstances facing those in our communities.

The above proposal won’t work for everyone. Unfortunately, not every child has a reliable home internet connection. Nor do all parents have the opportunity to work from home—they have to care for the sick, stock the shelves, patrol the streets—or take an hour off from work at home to give a lesson. I’m not sure how to tailor something like this to meet the needs of every member of my community. But I’d be willing to bet that other folks have great ideas I’ve never thought of.

Part of the value of sharing our various experiences living in and trying to best navigate the present moment is that it may contribute to figuring out how to meet our collective needs. Just as artists and entertainers have been inviting folks to free virtual events, and teachers have been sending out links to virtual learning platforms, parents can figure out ways to engage the children of our virtual village in safe, fun, and educational activities led by the adults they know and love. It’s one way, however small, to try and make these trying times a bit more bearable.

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James Pond/Unsplash
Source: James Pond/Unsplash

What follows is a short lesson plan intended to get kids talking about the concept of identity. It worked reasonably well for kids aged 5-11, and it would certainly work for older kids as well. It took about an hour, and we connected as a group using Zoom—but other platforms would surely work as well.

Preparation: Each kid should gather together two sets of Legos (or some other building medium), where each set has no more than 10 pieces (for time’s sake, but the number could be higher), and the two sets are identical (i.e., Set 1 has all of the exact same pieces as Set 2). They should build something out of Set 1, and they should leave Set 2 in a pile.

Activity: After a few minutes of greetings and unstructured discussion, have each of the kids take turns showing off their creations. Then have them each take one piece off of their creation, replace it with the identical piece from the Set 2 pile, and then put the piece they removed in a new pile. Repeat this 10 times, until each of the pieces in the original creation has been replaced, one-at-a-time, by identical pieces from the Set 2 pile. (Modification: have the kids rebuild the creation, piece-by-piece, with the pieces taken off of the original one, such that they end up with two versions of the creation by the end of the exercise.)

Discussion: Once the activity is finished, ask the kids whether the creation in front of them is the same creation with which they began (or which of the two creations is the original one, if they think either is). Allow each kid to share and explain their answer to the question. Then open it up for general discussion, calling on individual kids as they take turns.

The idea is to get the kids to think about whether changing the pieces of the creation altered its identity, and if so, at what point. Does replacing one piece make it a different thing? Two? Ten? This can easily slide into a discussion of such things as whether getting a haircut, a prosthetic limb, or simply the natural replacement of one’s cells impacts your identity over time. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the sophisticated things your kids have to say!

(Note: This lesson is modeled on the famous Ship of Theseus puzzle.)