Virtual learning has dominated the minds of educators in Canada all year as the COVID-19 pandemic rattled nearly every community. Parents all over the country have chosen to keep their kids at home, and those that are in school have endured weeks of virtual learning with classroom shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. Families are under incredible amount of stress with everyone at home using the internet, economic uncertainty, and of course some cabin fever with nowhere to go and limited social options. 

In these circumstances, how can we reduce stress and create healthier learning environments for our kids? How do we respond to the excessive screen time and lack of time to play with friends at recess? How do the adults in the home minimize the demands of supporting kids learning online while working full time?

Should you be wondering how you might survive through the next few months working and learning at home you’ve come to the right place. This article explores some of the best ways to create healthy virtual learning environments for our kids, and make life easier for all.

Want to learn all about virtual learning? Check out our blog.

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Virtual Learning Stress

a child learns virtually
Virtual learning can have kids feeling burnout. Source: Pixabay

If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to throw your phone out the window, you’re not alone. Parents and kids alike are completely burned out from looking at screens all day, talking to rows of avatars on screens, and having difficulty looking way. Irritability, lethargy and outbursts are just a few signs that your child has had enough of virtual world, and exhaustion is often normal.

Learning online is more demanding of kids as they must focus more to understand a lesson without the same cues as in-person school. Playing and socializing is completely different without face-to-face interaction, and cyberbullying becomes a risk with so many online. Anxiety may increase for those who fear speaking in front of a large group, and opportunities to work in small groups are not as frequent. Kids who are English language learners and/or have special education needs might also feel stressed trying to make sense of the virtual environment.

Of course, some kids enjoy working online and even thrive more than they would in regular school. Kids that love working with technology, or might be socially anxious, can find the virtual world empowering and love being in the comfort of their home. Every child’s experience will be different - take the time to observe your child and speak to their teacher to figure out whether or not they are adapting.

Other Stressors

In addition to the challenges presented by the virtual learning environment, it’s important to keep in mind the other sources of stress for kids right now. The ongoing situation of the pandemic is perhaps the most glaring: news headlines and social media feeds constantly warn of new variants and provide repeated reminders to stay at home. The pandemic likely also has your kids missing the regular routine of sports, music lessons, clubs, birthday parties, and playdates - they may feel sad about the new “normal” they inhabit, and the lack of variation in routine. Older kids are probably angry that they are missing so many of the coming-of-age rituals like dances, proms, parties and graduation.

Add all these stressors to what is happening with the adults in the household - economic insecurity, the wavering wi-fi that comes with having everyone online at the same time, limited privacy, and the tensions that may arise between so many people spending extra time together - and you have an environment that is toxic to everyone’s mental health.

Do you have a child in your home struggling with learning online? Learn our strategies for helping your kids in virtual school.

Create a Healthy Environment for Virtual Learning

So how do you make sense of the chaos and make your home a place where your kids can thrive? It may take some planning, a bit of elbow grease, and some tough conversations, but you can optimize your space and schedule to create better mental health for everyone in your family. 

Here are 5 ways you can create a healthy virtual learning environment for your entire family.

1. Make Organized Workspaces for your Kids

organized online learning workspace
Create organized workspaces for the virtual learner in your home. Source: Unsplash.

Carve out workspaces in your home that helps your kids to feel organized and intentional in their daily learning. If you have desks in your kids’ bedrooms, clear off the clutter and provide a chair that enables them to sit upright and still stay comfortable. Leave nothing on the desk but pens, stationery, and resources they will need for school. Open windows for natural light, turn on lamps for additional lighting (this will make them look better in their video meet), and make sure they make their beds so they can relax in a tidy space.

Teach your kids how to change their background so they don’t have to worry about what is going on behind them when they are in online school, and respect their privacy if your kids are lucky enough to have an enclosed space. Make sure your kids dress for virtual school as they would if attending class in person - make sure PJs are long gone before class begins.

If you have limited space in your home, take all the materials they need to work and organize them into bins or baskets that can be neatly put aside when school is done. The last thing you want is your kitchen or dining room table to be filled with clutter all the time: you’ll have more sanity when you see a tidy home. Set aside time every day for them to tidy up, and make sure all the clutter and trash is disposed of before they end their day.

The physical environment isn’t the only thing that needs to be organized: your child’s laptop or computer will likely also need maintenance. Delete all the files that are no longer in use, and help your child to set up folders in their drive to organize all their documents. Erase all the programs that aren’t being used on the computer to maximize its efficiency, and encourage them to have as few tabs as possible open on their browser.

With an organized work environment, your child will feel ready for school every day and develop valuable skills that will serve them well into their adult working lives.

Wondering how you are going to survive this year of working from home while your kids are in virtual school? Read our tips.

2. Set Boundaries for Technology Use

Part of creating a healthy virtual learning environment includes setting times to be on and off technology. Find out what your child’s daily schedule is like, and make sure they get enough time away from their computer. If you can be on lunch with them, eat together and put away the smartphones for a tech-free lunch. Head outside for walks during those breaks - the fresh air and oxygen will refresh them for an afternoon online.

Smartphones can be an endless distraction for both teens and adults, so try to put them in a drawer for a few hours during the night. Be a role model for your kids and stop looking at every email or text that sends a notification: you can hardly expect your children to look away from the screen if you can’t either.

Weekends are a perfect opportunity to do a digital detox, so set rules to be away from any technology once Saturday morning hits. The younger your kids are, the easier this will be. Parents of older kids might want to prepare for a difficult conversation and possibly some fighting to get this rule established. If a full weekend digital detox is unrealistic, then try to chunk some hours where no one can look at a screen.

3. Prioritize Fitness and Nutrition

Sitting in front of a computer for hours on end can do a number to your body, and your kids will impacted similarly. Posture and alignment can be affected from a workspace without ergonomic support, and muscles can feel cramped or listless without regular stretching and movement.

Prioritize wellness breaks
Prioritize outdoor and fitness time for your and your family. Source: Pexels

To keep your family healthy, prioritize wellness by making sure everyone gets a chance to move around. If you have small kids, make time at the end of the day to take them to a playground for socially distanced fun, do a short bike ride, take a ball to the park or backyard for some play, or play a game of tag with them. You might be feeling like a camp counselor, but both you and your kids will benefit from the movement.

Older kids will benefit from encouragement to go for a run, practice yoga or work out with an app, or simply take a long walk with some music. Exercise with your kids if possible, or motivate them with new fitness gear, workout equipment, a cute water bottle, or a chic yoga mat. Teens are highly susceptible to video games and social media, so getting them into a regular regimen of fitness will be critical as they are already spending excessive amounts of time online in class or working on projects.

4. Prepare Healthy Meals and Snacks Ahead of Time

Nutrition, like fitness, is also a priority with so much sedentary time. Spend your Sundays planning healthy meals and snacks for the week that are easy to make and access. Snacks are a given during the week, and you can keep your kids away from the chips and processed foods by doing a few healthy bakes to fill your pantry. Oatmeal cookies, egg muffins, healthy muffins, nuts, cut up vegetables and hummus, and banana loaves are just a few items you can make quickly over the weekend. Opt for oat and whole grain flours, and avoid sugar whenever possible.

Meal time shouldn’t be stressful, so make healthy eating easy by preparing as much as you can before the week starts. If you know you will need chopped onions, do it once on the weekend with a food processor and save yourself a lot of trouble throughout the week. Allow yourself time to have easy, ‘snacky’ meals like sandwiches, pizza, and oven baked fries or potatoes with toppings. Try meal services where you get all the meal materials you need delivered to your door, or make a casserole or lasagna early in the week you can pop in the oven. Treat your family to take out once a week, and avoid easy and cheap fast-food options.

Are you feeling stressed from having your kids in virtual learning? Find out our best tips for coping with virtual learning stress.

5. Plan Activities Away from the Computer

Your kids will have a healthy virtual learning environment if you bring variety to their day and plan offline activities. Crafting, painting, gardening, baking, reading, or simply cleaning your home can be refreshing breaks from hours watching a monitor. If you love being organized, create timetables every week with ideas for each day, whether it is colouring a mandala or baking muffins. Book a time at your local ice skating rink, or take a hike at a local reserve. Have a night of board or card games. Allot time to an evening of building with legos, or head outside and plant a bed of flowers you can enjoy for the season.

When you have activities planned in advance, there is less temptation to resort to activities like passively bingeing on television or scrambling for something to do. Your kids will feel engaged and you will feel relaxed knowing that you’re kids are stimulated. 

Mastering the “New Normal”

Virtual learning has undoubtedly made life more complicated for families, and maintaining a healthy living environment is a huge challenge for busy parents. Luckily, there are plenty of adjustments we can make to our lifestyles to optimize spending so much time at home. Hopefully, we will gain plenty of new healthy habits from this experience that we can use in a post-pandemic world.

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Colleen

Colleen is a Toronto-based educator, mom and freelance writer who believes in lifelong learning and strong coffee.