Forget dull worksheets – immerse children in rich learning opportunities with these easy ideas, says Jonny Walker..
In these unprecedented times, our students and our own children will be spending more time than ever learning at home.
Resist the temptation to bombard them with a dull parade of worksheets. Instead, try these home learning project ideas, which are meaningful, immersive and rich learning opportunities.
It is important that we remember that not all children have regular access to laptops, computers, tablets and smartphones. That’s why there are a range of suggestions here, some of which involve internet technology, and some that don’t.
Sometimes we overburden children by expecting them to invent a story, plot, characters and dialogue from scratch.
By using their real life as fuel, children can focus on the humour and storytelling.
You can make a comic book template for them (or download one here), or they can make their own. They can then make a comic showing the peculiar life of their household.
The Beano is a great source of inspiration. Its website contains lots of comic strip examples.
The following game is a fun and quirky way to generate a story arc. You’ll need at least two people, taking turns.
The first person shares a sentence beginning with the word ‘Fortunately’ – their role is to tell a happy, optimistic tale.
The next person begins with ‘Unfortunately’, and responds, trying to make the story sad.
The playful back and forth is fun in itself, but can lead to inventive story ideas.
During this period of social distancing and self-isolation, many older people in our communities and families may be feeling particularly lonely.
This project can help to keep children occupied in a meaningful way that benefits others.
If you’re a parent, think of relatives or neighbours who may like to take part. If you’re a school, investigate linking up with a local nursing home.
Children can prepare questions in advance and call their chosen older person to hear their stories.
They can then write these up and send them to their interviewees, or phone them up and read it to them.
This project can be small or large. On a smaller scale, set up an art session and draw or paint a superhero alter-ego, or write and record part of a film script.
On a larger scale, encourage children to live as their superhero alter-ego for a while.
What does their costume look like? Do they have any gadgets? Can they create these using junk modelling and bits and bobs from home?
Act out or film scenes of heroism. Marvellous! (See what I did there?)
It would be remiss of me not to mention one of the simplest and most effective home learning activities: read books, and read them well.
If children are lucky enough to have lots of books at home, they can start with any they’ve not read before.
Many children’s writers have authorised teachers to read their books in online videos. Pupils will love seeing a familiar face.
Mousetrap Theatre Projects has launched a new ‘stay-at-home’ theatre initiative to bring the merriment and creativity of the stage into every living room in the country.
Every week, Mousetrap sets different creative challenges which explore different themes, genres and techniques.
Week one involves working with your household to create a theatre-inspired video clip. Try a Shakespearean speech, a parody of your favourite show or the famous clicking battle from West Side Story.
Link up pupils with each other on an online platform like Google Classroom.
Give each child a different topic, ideally covering the breadth of the curriculum.
For example, one pupil can research the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, while another researches the significance of the Rosetta Stone for Egyptology.
Ask pupils to create a three-minute ‘show’ about their topic, demonstrating and articulating their research in engaging ways. Focus on presentational skills as much as the content being researched.
Baking and cooking are good things to be doing in their own right, but if you want to introduce a mathematical element, formalise it a bit so that the maths doesn’t get lost in the process.
If you have the recipe for how much of each ingredient is needed to make one cookie, how much of each ingredient will we need to make eight cookies?
This can be an effective way to foreground children’s understanding of ratio.
An effective way for children to develop an understanding of money, and of equivalence, is to set up a household ‘swap shop’.
Children can find objects that they want to exchange and attribute a value to each item.
If one child wants to swap a doll for a value of £3, what could he afford to swap it for from his sister’s shop?
If pupils have access to technology, this is something that could be done with classmates.
Ask each child to photograph their ‘shop’ with visible price labels. They can then ‘trade’ with classmates.
This can all be make-believe – no contracts need exchanging! Platforms like Google Classroom are well equipped for this.
Shadow theatre originated thousands of years ago in China and Indonesia.
As a form of ancient storytelling, it is worthy of study in its own right, as well as being a rich way to develop children’s skills in design and performance.
Children can create their own stories, props and characters from scratch, or create their own reimaginings of classic fairy and folk tales.
This focus means less time is spent imagining characters, and more is spent on pupils’ own interpretation of their words and actions.
Many of my students can often be heard shouting ‘Tekkers!’ as they dribble past an embarrassed opponent, or nutmeg them.
Encourage children to use their time to practise close control techniques.
If they have a garden, great. If not, there are still lots of skills that can be developed indoors without smashing the TV.
Toe taps are a good one to practise for football. Can children do 60 in a minute?
If children have access to a basketball hoop, or can make one, how many shots can they make out of 50 each day?
Encourage them to record the results in a table. This allows them to see their progress and practise calculating averages.
I run a geography bee with schools each year. This year I’ve put it online.
There are five rounds, each around 20 minutes long, and a free study pack.
It will introduce children to locational knowledge, flags and mapping skills, then guide them to do independent research on elements of human and physical geography.
A prolonged time at home allows for children to get stuck into some more ambitious science projects.
By making a camera obscura lens, children can learn about light, technology and the function of the human eye.
It creates a stunning visual effect, too, and the scientific understanding beneath it is equally fascinating. Here is a simple guide.
If you ask most children what they like about school, you can bet that school trips are high on their list.
Whilst we are all social distancing this is a bit of a pipe dream, but hope is not lost, since many great museums have some very well-designed virtual tours that children can enjoy.
This mosaic tile project is a fusion of geometry and art.
As well as making something aesthetically pleasing, children will be learning the relationship between area and regular/irregular shapes. Explore the art of MC Escher before starting.
Begin with a small (A6/A7) piece of rectangular card. Cut a patterned line along a vertical side and stick it to the opposite side.
Repeat with the horizontal sides. This shape is a perfect tessellator.
Experiment with this idea. Can children make a tessellation tile in the shape of an animal, for example?
There are an abundance of practical ways to let children explore and experiment with the notion of water and air resistance.
Push the edge of a spatula or fish slice through water and notice that it doesn’t splash, whereas it does when pushed through along its flat edge. Why?
For air resistance, make ‘good’ and ‘bad’ paper aeroplanes and consider why some work and others don’t.
Use this logic to create the most effective paper aeroplane you can. Measure the distance it flies.
Scratch is a programming software and community that is committed to supporting children to learn coding.
It’s pitched at eight to 16-year-olds, with Scratch Jr accommodating five to seven-year-olds. The whole project is developed by academics at MIT.
The app and website are very user-friendly; children can create animations, stories and even games, and there is a lot of help for parents and pupils alike.
Make the most of the time you’re allowed to spend outdoors.
Get children to breathe deep and notice the small details of their daily walk. This can inspire poetry back at home.
Watch a video of Adisa the poet exploring this idea here:
For all the majesty of technological advancement, there are few things that excite a kid as much as receiving mail that is addressed to them.
Organise a letter swap among the children in your class to help them feel connected.
Act as an intermediary by asking families to send their letters to school, to be passed on to different children in the class, or try linking up with another school.
Many schools work in creative partnership with local artists who have great expertise and ideas.
Ask them if they can support children to develop their technical skills and creative expression during the lockdown.
Look for practical tutorials on YouTube. ArtJohn is a great example, with sculpture, 3D drawing and colour mixing tutorials for teachers, parents and children.
It can sometimes feel like our children are speaking in code, but this takes it to the next level.
Codes can enable children to develop a foundational understanding of computational language, which depends on similar devices and techniques.
The Postal Museum has a great resource pack for teachers which can be adapted for home learning.
There are some great board games out there for kids. Many classics, like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, have junior versions. There are also free Scrabble apps available.
Alternatively, why not set children the challenge of creating their own?
The theme can draw on their own interests, and children will need to make the board and playing equipment, as well as coming up with a clear set of rules and instructions.
For children and their families, this shutdown will be a strange and memorable experience.
Encourage them to collate their writing, art, poetry and other creations into a big book, which can serve as a memento of this peculiar time.
Knowing that this anthology exists will be a motivator in itself, as children tend to think more carefully about what they are doing if they have a clearer purpose.
If your children lean more towards the visual, turn the fridge or a spare wall into a gallery.
The Reading Journey is a brilliant app developed by Just Imagine.
It allows children to log the books they’ve read and also makes smart recommendations and sets challenges for pupils to record their own response.
It is all about celebrating and promoting a love of reading. Given that children will have more time, it can be a great way for teachers to see what pupils are immersing themselves in.
Schools, rather than parents, need to sign up, but it’s free.
More than any of the above, the most important thing for us to do in these times is to make time to talk.
As adults, we are likely juggling several worries and anxieties, and our children are likely to feel very similar. The news is scary for us, and even more so for children.
Make time to talk and to truly listen. Let children share what is on their mind, whether they are blissfully happy and distracted, or sad and missing school.
For now, families are the most valuable learning resource schools have access to.
Jonny Walker is the director of OtherWise Education and runs innovative projects across groups of schools, such as poetry retreats and creative writing networks. During the school closures, OtherWise is curating a collection of free resources for schools, families and children.
How to help children learn at home