I took a little creative liberty with the title. The “COVID-19 ‘Vacation'” refers to the two weeks my kids were on their normal “vacation” from school, but we were physically distancing at home. For them, this was their regularly-planned vacation. When the school was scheduled to start back up again, they had a distance learning curriculum. There’s nothing about COVID-19 that should be considered a vacation.
Additionally, we have a kindergartner and a first grader. That’s too long for the title, so I simplified it. For practical purposes, I would consider most of the activities below appropriate for students ranging from K-2.
As a financial blogger, I need to bring money into the mix. Many of these options were cheap or even free. Some were part of things that we paid for anyway (before COVID-19), such as Netflix and Hulu.
Finally, I’m taking most of the credit of this, so I often write in the first person. My wife’s US Public Health Service work has been very, very, busy as you might imagine. It’s actually been extremely busy for a few years, so I’ve taken it upon myself to be an amateur educator at night as a hobby. A passion for learning and access to the internet can take you very far nowadays. (My wife, as a pharmacist, did find some time to run an amazing class on the three states of matter: gases, liquids, and solids. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any litmus paper handy for a second class.)
That’s more than enough qualification, let’s get started!
Kindergarten to Second Grade Homeschooling
With our travel plans cancelled, we found it better to focus more on an academic vacation than we normally would have. Otherwise the kids would have just been watching TV and playing video games. That’s like just eating chocolate for 2 weeks straight. It’s not healthy.
It turns out that I was well-prepared for homeschooling. There are many parents who do this full time, so they are much better than I am. However, I’m a bit of a tiger dad and I buy a lot of educational thing like place-value charts and fraction cubes. (This is a good time to mention that if you buy some of the items listed, I may get a small commission.) I particularly like that place-value chart because as long as your net worth is under 10 million, you can display it and no one will know what it represents.
One of the most important goals was to disguise the learning parts as much as possible. The kids know they are on vacation. COVID-19 robbed them of their fun time, they shouldn’t feel penalized with tedious school work. As part of that, we mostly alternated between a learning activity and their own free choice, which was often a Pokemon show, but other times it was something to get their body moving, when possible.
There were times when I needed a break. For those times, I put together a list of a few educational shows that are also entertaining for them. I’m not against screen-time as long as it’s educational screen-time. Some of our favorite shows included: Oddsquad (PBS), Ruff Ruffman (PBS available on Amazon Prime), Brainchild (Netflix), Mythbusters Jr. (Hulu), and Warren Buffett’s Secret Millionaire’s Club (stream for free).
I had previously gotten a first and second grade workbook (over 300 pages each) from Aldi. They cover all kinds of topics – obviously reading and math, but also things like fact vs. opinion. I find that these tend to be a little easier than their school’s curriculum, so my kindergartner did some of the first grade worksheets with a little guidance (such as reading the instructions). My first grader works well with the second grade book. This is an example of what the books look like. I tricked my kindergartner into doing some of the easiest second grade sheets, because I thought he could handle the math (his strong suit). These books were about $4-5 each and in retrospect some of the best money I’ve spent.
The key to make this not feel like work is that they got earned a tally (or a sticker system) for each sheet. When they’ve collected 10 tallys (or stickers), they got a reward. One reward was Minecraft for their Amazon Fire HD 10s. Another reward was a box of Pokemon cards. I give them a budget and let them decide to combine their money for a bigger gift to share or buy separately.
I also introduced the kids to Prodigy Math. It’s a knock-off of Pokemon with pets that you can collect, power-up, and battle with. However, you “battle” by answering math facts correctly. It’s free, but there’s a heavy push to pay so that your pets can evolve. This is actually part of the kids’ school’s third grade curriculum (but that would be with more difficult math).
The kids’ school teaches French, even at this young age. My school didn’t have foreign language until I was in the 7th grade! I got their Fire HD 10 (my Fire 10 HD review) set up with Duolingo. I wanted them to continue with French, but they prefer Japanese. Either they want to learn what I’m learning or they really want to work for Gamefreak and invent new Pokemon one day. I’m fine if they prefer Japanese. There’s not much to make this interesting for them other than to continue the daily streak. I have been thinking about giving them money for earning Experience Points (XP) once a month. I’m worried about setting a dangerous precedent of paying for academic activity though.
The kids had a daily chess match. My kindergartner is better at math and spatial thinking, so he can compete well with my first grader, despite the 15 month age difference. I gave them some simple strategies and scoring (adding up the value of chess pieces). I followed the games and suggest moves they could have done differently and why. Eventually, I got them each a chess app for their tablets so they could play even if the other didn’t want to.
It may sound silly to mention, but we also simply read books. We had already read most of the books in our house multiple times (and we have so, so many books). So I got the Libby app, which has a lot of eBooks.
We worked on solving a 2×2 Rubik’s Cube as well. I found a deal on one awhile back and it hadn’t been used much (except by me). There are great instructions online on how to solve it. If you have a kid who loves puzzles, this is a good activity. It also teaches them how to follow directions. The kids also love to build Mega Construx Pokemon. (Yes, you’ll notice the Pokemon theme again and again.) It’s also great for following instructions – just like building model cars when I was a kid. We’ve got quite the collection of Mega Construx Pokemon now – gotta build them all!
We are also learning a lot of home skills such as cooking and laundry. I find that cooking has a lot of learning opportunities. Lots of measuring, fractions, and science all rolled into a practical life skill. I wanted them to learn how to do laundry, because they can help lighten the load and share my misery ;).
For physical education, the school had suggested Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube. Yes, there’s a Pokemon-themed Yoga there too. We take our dog on daily walks down some hiking local paths which is great for fresh air, social distancing, and sunshine. In certain places, I let the kids use their phones to play Pokemon Go (my phone is a mobile hotspot – they have old hand-me-down phones that just connect to mine via wifi). There’s a lot of math and game logic involved in Pokemon Go and they are excited about it. We tried to get bike riding and scootering in, but the weather didn’t cooperate as much as we’d like.
Kindergarten Homeschooling Tips
There were some activities (not a lot as you’ll see) that worked better for my kindergartner.
We slowly went through the start of Rebecca Sitton’s 1200 word list of high frequency words. My youngest could do about about 85% of the first 120. I circled the ones he needed help with and did a review with them a few days later. We stopped there. I didn’t want to go too far with this list – it may have gotten difficult and frustrating. I think most of these words are part of the first grade curriculum anyway, so he should be ready for a good start next year.
Khan Academy Kids has a free app that reads the books with the words being highlighted. This was useful, because it helped him see the words as they were being read. Unfortunately, the rest of the app was geared towards younger kids. My first grader can read very well, so this app wasn’t useful for him.
First Grade Homeschooling Tips
Just like the kindergarten homeschooling tips above, some of the things worked better for my first grader. This is where it pays to know your kids’ strengths and weaknesses, it will help you guide them to things that are challenging, but not frustrating.
In fact, there was really only thing that fit my first grader better than my kindergartner. Adventure Academy was available for free from some deal sites at the start of the school closures. It seems that access was taken away and maybe the code was for another school system and not meant for the general public. It’s geared for grades 3-8, but my first grader could get started and do most of the academic activities he came across. He learned about similes vs. metaphors for example. He would play with it for about 90 minutes a couple of times and then put it away for days and say it was “boring learning.”
I had high hopes that if the gamification aspect worked, he’d be able to learn at his own pace, which is far faster than I can keep up with. Normally, this costs anywhere from around $60 to $90 a year. I was afraid to invest in it because technically their Fire HD 10s are not supported and they don’t have laptops. However, the Fire HD 10s worked decently through the Google Play store that was side-loaded on them. Very rarely, it was a little slow. Amazon’s Fire HD 10s now have an upgraded processor, so if you have the latest one it will probably work fine.
Final First Grade Homeschooling Tips
There are so many lists of resources out there, especially now. It’s OVERLOAD! It simply isn’t reasonable for any parent or child to explore them all. That’s why I’m writing a curated version of what worked for us.
It was also especially helpful to keep a spreadsheet (or even a simple list) of things that worked. For example, I had forgotten about Secret Millionaire’s Club until I reviewed the spreadsheet to write this article. That’s my Google Sheet at the top of this article. What I like about having a spreadsheet is that I can sort for different types of activities like art or give myself a break by sorting for television. It took me only a few minutes to create this spreadsheet. It could easily be dozens and dozens of items if I needed more. However, a few staples that we could do everyday (chess and worksheets) and some variety went a long way.
If you are looking for more inspiration there are numerous suggestions in this Slickdeals post, this OneTab page, and Wide Open School. I’d recommend the last one, Wide Open School, as it’s powered by the trusted brand of Common Sense Media and a bunch of other brands you might have heard of like Sesame Street, PBS, Nick Jr., National Geographic, Scholastic, etc. It would be my “Lazy” recommendation.
Unfortunately educating children is another case in life where there’s no “one size fits all.” Hopefully this article gave you some ideas on how to combine learning and fun. I hope even more that we can get back to school and work making this purely supplemental. If your school is doing a good job with distance learning now and you don’t need any new ideas, maybe save it for the summer.