How to turn family time into a learning experience with deeper connection

Many parents are spending more time with their kids than ever before, as the world adjusts to a new reality. As we take on the juggle of working from home, home-schooling and maintaining family time, we may feel as if every moment needs to be maximised – this is, after all, a unique situation and opportunity. There are many activities you can do together that teach children something new, but as educator, speech pathologist and home-schooling mum Pika Sen shares, using this time to build meaningful connections and helping your child feel supported may be the real lesson.

Folding learnings into family time

“Educating outside of school wasn't in my plans for my kids,” says Sen, who has an intense schedule as director of Imagine If Bespoke Education Experience, which specialises in early intervention and supports families to maintain resilient, positive relationships. ”However, what has always been in my plans, is to keep the focus on two vital things: prioritising my family's psychological well-being over anything else.”

As you engage your children in everyday experiences and planned activities that lend themselves to teaching new skills or introducing interesting concepts, keep in mind that sometimes you may just want to do nothing at all together, or indulge in pure fun. And that’s just as valuable!

“I would like to suggest just being,” says Sen. “Kids are making a mess doing nothing that a self-respecting parent would call productive? Join them, make a funny comment. Redefine your role as the provider of real-life context to all book-learned material rather than as the pusher of 'more school at home'.”

If you’re looking for different ways to spend time together, here are some family activities and everyday moments you may want to use as springboards for meaningful ways to share knowledge – without pressure.

1. Gardening

If you have a patch of green or a balcony, and plenty of sun, getting your children involved in urban gardening can be incredibly fulfilling for both parents and kids. Teaching children to sow seeds, watch seedlings grow and look after leafy greens or a cucumber vine that they can harvest comes with plenty of learning opportunities along the way – and healthy rewards. Even indoor gardening and tending to house plants together can establish a morning routine that allows you to bond with family. Showing kids how to nurture plants is a wonderful way to encourage an affinity for nature, even when indoors.

2. Cooking family meals

Measuring ingredients, learning how to follow recipes, teaching older kids knife skills and also going off-recipe to season a dish to taste are all valuable ways to set up your future foodies for independence. If, like many, you’ve been living an incredibly busy lifestyle and often miss mealtimes together as a family, make use of this time to dine together too. No television or devices, of course. Beyond the opportunity for conversation and connection, the Family Meals Movement in the US highlights the positive, lifelong benefits of family meals, and points to research that shows children who grow up sharing family meals are more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviour as adults, such as sharing, fairness and respect.

3. Pick a card

A good old game of cards teaches kids observational skills, strategic thinking and turn-taking – and while healthy competition is always fun, playing against each other hopefully encourages everyone in the family to exhibit their nature as a gracious winner or loser. And, this could be the maths equivalent of sneaking vegetables into your child’s dish, but try out card games that throw maths skills into the mix such as Pepperoni Pizza, or Nifty Fifty.

4. Everyday life skills

This is a unique opportunity to teach kids how to be more responsible for their own space, just as you are: organising and maintaining their learning, playing and relaxation zones in the home if they aren’t already taking ownership of this. Encourage them to contribute more to household tasks with you, such as setting the table for all those family meals you’ll be enjoying together. You might want to layer these responsibilities around the home with teaching primary school age kids about earning money, saving and donating to a charity that resonates with the family.

The importance of real connection

At the heart of these activities, advises Sen, should be two very important strategies: maintaining your child’s feeling of safety and support, and truly getting on the same page as a family.

Your child’s immediate support network is essential to maintain, especially during the COVID-19 situation. “As usual, it's the simplest things that build connections with your kids throughout the day: sharing a smile, watching a funny video together, hugs or high fiving just because, or just being in the same room as them more often,” she says.

If you’re struggling to get through tasks on your schedule, stop, breathe and reprioritise. You may decide what’s most important is using this time to really get to know your kids, and getting on the same wavelength as a family. “Create a solid foundation from which to parent moving forward. This is a unique time in which to do it,” Sen adds.