Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Diving into Distance Learning because of COVID-19? You'll Love These Elementary Activities

March 16, 2020

Wade Whitehead explaining fossils

By Wade Whitehead (VA '00) 

With the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools around the country, many educators are diving into distance learning for the first time. These elementary level activities from Virginia Milken Educator Wade Whitehead (VA '00) are perfectly suited to remote instruction. Wade teaches fifth grade at Crystal Spring Elementary School in Roanoke and is the founder of the Teachers of Promise Foundation.

With schools buckling into triage mode as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, most minds have asked: "How can we use the internet and web services (for which we pay dearly) to compel student learning at home?"

My first thought, however, was that an extended break could very well result in students spending inordinate amounts of time on screens. There is something about a pixel that is very unnatural. Its high energy blue light causes damage to the retina and has been shown to contribute to all manner of health concerns.

But, mostly, I remembered the winter of my kindergarten year when my school on the Virginia-Tennessee border was closed for a month following winter break. This was pre-computer, pre-tablet, pre-wifi. I remember building fires, playing games, building forts, hiding and seeking, making music, cooking, and sewing (then wearing) a superhero costume.

The contagious crisis of the coronavirus hands us the same opportunity: to drive learning through curiosity, play, and exploration across cultures and generations—using all sorts of technology, from pencils and paper to cardboard and kitchenware, but while taking a break from electricity, from screens, and from the wild west we call the internet.

It's a chance to remind students and their families that learning hides all around the home, whether that be a house, a duplex, or an apartment and that the secret ingredients to new knowledge are imagination, discovery, and sharing.

The ideas on the list below were designed to provoke the ultimate outcome: children creating, out of the elements around them, that which did not exist before. These activities were built to honor family traditions, to offer choice, and to celebrate voice. Those are the ambitious goals I hold for my classroom instruction. I hope I am giving families a chance to build memories by experiencing them up close and in full action. In the end, I'm hoping a heartfelt love of learning is the only thing any of my students—or their families—catch during the coming weeks.

One other thing: My list is inspired by the "equity lens," which requires that we consider how the realities our students are living mesh with the educational experience we provide. The activities I suggest require innovation and perseverance but leave behind the socioeconomic variables that separate many students from success. In the words of my esteemed Milken Educator colleague and friend Baruti Kafele (NJ '09), this sort of instruction is a reflection of humanity toward the children we serve.

Ideas for Fun, Meaningful & Generally Pixel-Free At-Home Learning (Especially for Elementary Schoolers)

: : Click here for a downloadable version of this list : : 

  1. Interview a family member.
  2. Measure the area and perimeter of each room in your home.
  3. Graph the types of birds that frequent your yard or windows.
  4. Be completely silent for 60 minutes, then write about the experience.
  5. Write and mail a (real) letter to your teacher or principal or classroom pen pal. Address the envelope yourself.
  6. Build a "fable fort" out of blankets and chairs. Camp in it all day while you create stories to tell your family over dinner.
  7. Learn Morse code and use it to communicate with your siblings through walls and floors.
  8. Alphabetize the spices in your kitchen.
  9. Stay up late and stargaze.
  10. Call a grandparent or older relative. Ask them to teach you the words to a song from their childhood days.
  11. Using household materials, build a working rain gauge, barometer and wind vane.
  12. Determine and chart the times that different liquids require to turn solid in the freezer.
  13. Design and build puppets that perform a show about multiplication.
  14. Construct a family tree.
  15. Learn 10 new big words. Write them in marker on your bathroom mirror.
  16. Draw a map of your home.
  17. Sit silently for 15 minutes while you write down every sound you hear. When you are done, classify the sounds (high/low pitch, high/low volume, man-made vs. naturally occurring, etc.).
  18. Create a Venn Diagram that compares and contrasts two people in your family, your neighborhood, or your church, mosque or temple.
  19. Learn, practice and perform a magic trick.
  20. Use household materials to make and play stringed, percussion and wind instruments.
  21. Learn to shine a pair of shoes.
  22. Collect leaves from 10 different (non-harmful) plants. Sort them by size, color and texture.
  23. Put your favorite book, toy and keepsake on a small table. Draw or paint a full color still life.
  24. Find, pick and dissect a flower.
  25. If you have stairs, walk up and count them. Walk down and count by twos. Walk up and count by threes. Continue through tens.
  26. Determine the volumes of 10 containers, then display them in order on your porch.
  27. Write a poem on your sidewalk using chalk.
  28. Classify 20 everyday objects by shape, size, color, height, mass and material.
  29. Measure the length of your bed using five different nonstandard units.
  30. Call a person who speaks a language you do not. Ask them to teach you five common words or phrases.
  31. Create and use a secret code.
  32. Using one type of paper (constant), build three different paper airplanes (independent variable) and test to see how far they fly (dependent variable).
  33. Set a clock three hours and seven minutes ahead. Whenever someone needs to know the time, help them figure it out by subtracting.
  34. Write down every adjective you say for one full day.
  35. Learn three new jokes. Tell them to an aunt or uncle.
  36. Design a map of every state or country ever visited by people in your family.
  37. Write or tell a story titled "What if humans had to leave the Earth and no one remembered to turn off the last robot?"
  38. Find 10 rocks smaller than a dime.
  39. Using paper, tape and string, design build and test a device that warns you when someone opens the kitchen cabinet.
  40. Imagine, create and fly a full size flag that tells the world about you.

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