Last spring, when 55 million U.S. students were flung into remote learning, everyone just kind of did the best they could. Parents took meetings in their beds; teachers led Zoom calls from their cars, and kids were just kind of plopped down wherever some relatively quiet space was available for them.
But now, as millions of students head into another (potentially much longer) round of remote learning, experts say it’s time to be more deliberate in how we set up children’s space.
“In the spring it felt short-term. It felt like, if we can just get through the next few months then summer is coming,” said Kylie Roth, vice president of research with the design brand Knoll. “The reality setting in for all of us now is that this really is more of a long-term thing.”
And we know work environments matter. Research shows workspaces for adults can have a direct impact on job satisfaction and production. Studies involving children show that their physical environment can “profoundly influence learning.”
So as you set up your child’s workspace, here are a few basic tips and features to keep in mind:
1. Get their screen set-up right.
If you’ve ever stared down at a laptop for a few hours and suffered through the subsequent neck pain, then you know: screen placement is a major factor in overall comfort. Experts generally agree the screen should be just at eye level — and about 20 to 30 inches from a child’s face, Roth said.
It’s also important to get lighting right, he added, particularly if your child is going to be spending a lot of time video chatting with teachers and classmates. Make sure their space is bright enough, ideally with a light source to the side of their computer monitor rather than directly in front of or behind them. It’s not about vanity; it’s about making sure your kiddos’ classmates and teachers can clearly see their faces and expressions. You’re really thinking about minimizing neck and eye strain and bolstering communication. Because it’s easier to engage when you’re looking straight at someone, rather than, say, the top of their head or up their nose.
2. Make sure their feet hit the floor.
“You want to start with a really good chair,” Roth said, adding that it should be comfortable.
But she emphasized that the simplest thing to do is make sure that your kiddo’s feet connect with the floor. Think of how strange it feels when you’re in a high top stool at a bar or restaurant and there’s nowhere to really put your feet, Roth. said. You don’t want your child to feel similarly unmoored.
“It helps them feel grounded and more ready to learn,” Roth said.
3. Give them a cubby.
“Most kids and teenagers generate disorganization,” Roth said. Which is why it’s so important to give them a space where they can keep their school stuff — their devices, books, workbooks, etc.
It doesn’t have to be big at all. Maybe a section of an open bookcase or some kind of other little cubby, Roth said, just a dedicated little space where they can organize their school stuff in the same way they can with a cubby or locker at school.
4. Consider how and when they’ll move.
Flow and movement aren’t necessarily factors parents consider when setting up learning spaces, but experts say they’re important. It might be worth considering a sit-to-stand desk that allows your child to change postures throughout the day, Roth said, but it’s not necessary. Consider: Is there somewhere where they could comfortably stand and work or learn throughout the day, in addition to their seated spot?
Movement is important to learning, which is why students aren’t stationary all day when they’re in the classroom.
“Remind your child to take breaks and move around physically (jumping jacks, push-ups, stretches, yoga, etc.) or even while sitting — [such as] exercises that you would do in an airplane to keep circulation moving,” said Elizabeth Milovidov, a law professor and digital parenting expert with Tone Networks. Consider their eyes as well. Every 20 minutes or so have them look at something about 20 feet away from them for about 20 seconds.
5. Include some way for them to keep track of time.
Parents have been told repeatedly since last spring that sticking to some kind of daily schedule can be helpful for children academically and emotionally. Milovidov said parents should “get creative with timers” in order to keep your child on track, and give them a clear sense of where they are at any point on any given day.
”[Consider a] sand clock [or] egg timer to help keep your child — younger or older — on track,” she said. “You can, of course, use digital apps to support your child, but sometimes it is a nice change to use something analog.”
6. Cut down on distractions.
Obvious? Perhaps. But it’s so important that parents “set up a space for minimal distraction,” Molovidov urged. If you can give your child their own, dedicated desk with their own, dedicated chair — in an area of your home where they won’t be subject to a lot of disruptions — that’s really ideal.
That’s not always possible given a family’s space, so think about solutions that can help. Could headphones cut down on noise? Can you designate a family “blue zone” — basically a secluded, almost sacred part of your home where you guarantee some level of quiet — that you and your children can use on a rotating basis?
Also, talk to your child about what, if anything, they found distracting last spring. Maybe they didn’t like knowing that you could overhear their online class sessions. Perhaps they were annoyed when their siblings interrupted them. Ask them about what worked, and what didn’t, and adjust accordingly.
7. Let them personalize things.
Part of the excitement of back-to-school season is showing off a new outfit or haircut and checking out a new classroom (or dorm room) that will be their home away from home for the next year. So if you’re sprucing up a corner of your home to be your kiddo’s workspace, give them some say. Let them pick out the colors for any furnishings or desk supplies. Let them add a plant they can take care of. Encourage them to hang up some drawings or posters.
“Let them feel like the space is theirs,” Roth said. “Give them a little bit of that excitement back.”
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