Editor’s Note: This story was produced in collaboration with the team behind PopSci’s new line of STEM toys.
A year into living in a COVID-19 world, we’ve learned to live with things like face masks and one-third-capacity gyms, but challenges remain. Even as some schools in the US start to reopen, a lot of the normal outlets—museums, local libraries, after school activities—that keep the kiddos busy evenings and weekends are still to some degree off the table. With videogames, TikTok, and a seemingly endless well of streaming cartoons available at a second’s notice, screen time is up by as much as 50 percent since before the start of the pandemic. But, how else can parents keep them occupied, without turning their growing brains into mush?
“While we can always learn at any age, kids’ nervous systems and curiosity about the world make it a particularly good time to engage them around their passions and the world around them,” says Rebecca Mannis, a developmental psychologist with a specialization in neuroscience and education with 35 years of teaching experience.
The challenge is, with kids spending more time in isolation at home and a large chunk of that on screens for school and to connect with friends and family, their brains haven’t necessarily been as engaged as fully as they normally would be, says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emerita at Lesley University where she was a teacher educator in child development for more than 30 years. “Children learn optimally through interactions using all of the senses,” she explains.
Fortunately, there are simple ways parents can help the young ones use their full senses to stimulate their brains.
Encourage unstructured play
“A lot of times parents get in the way,” says Tina Payne Bryson, a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who studies the relationship between play and neurological development. With adults juggling work, childcare, and other responsibilities, they need to embrace that it’s not up to them to keep kids occupied for their brains to stay humming.
Letting the little ones spend time independently with unstructured play—letting them explore and be curious—”is an incredible way that they actually learn,” she adds.
What does fall to parents, however, is setting up avenues for this type of exploration. For example, Payne Bryson would place a blue blanket or towel on the floor and tell her son it was a big body water and that he had to figure out how to get his toys across it to safety. “I would set up this imaginary world for him—set up a stage for play, and then he could engage with that,” she explains.
In general, experts advise making materials that stimulate creativity available for kids to explore on their own. Boxes of dress-up that encourage imaginative make-believe, and collections of building and art materials foster deeper engagement. All the while, parents should remain open-minded to other interests, from finger painting to simply playing in the mud.
Pick toys they need to work for
While children don’t need toys, as their family and environment can provide enough educational stimulation, playthings “can be great for kids,” says Payne Bryson. But not all toys are created equally and it’s important to have criteria when choosing them.
Experts recommend selecting items that encourage active learning and problem solving, and facilitate engaging with others, like the PopSci ZUFO Flyer, which challenges kids to keep the saucer hovering aloft to dazzle onlookers.
To promote your child’s natural curiosity and sense of exploration, parents should pick multifunctional items like building sets or science kits that can be used to invent something new, that offer different evolving experiences at different stages throughout a child’s development, and that don’t require repetitive activity—like this crayon that paints the air with light. “Most anything can be educational if it’s used to create something new or as a way to engage with another person,” explains Mannis.
Putting toys out of sight every so often and bringing them back into rotation again can also help tired old plaything feel like novelties again, according to Payne-Bryson.
Embrace rituals and novelty
“In these days of routine and often boredom, adding novelty to the evenings and weekends can mix things up,” says Dan Peters, psychologist and author of Raising Creative Kids. “It is important that we help our kids keep their brains engaged with thought and novelty to keep them alert, growing, and making new neural connections.”
Even establishing rituals like game nights, movie nights, and music nights—or simply letting each person in the family have their night to choose what the family does—creates special times to look forward to, he continues.
That’s because kids’ brains are most stimulated when they’re active participants and contributing to the activity. The range of potential avenues is vast: Families can go on a scavenger hunts, listen to different types of music or podcasts during meal prep, play practical joke, or host a timed story writing competition .
In the end, it doesn’t matter what activities the family centers in on, as long as they continue to mix things up, and the goings on promote inventive thinking, not “closed thinking” which limits kids’ brain engagement, explains Carlsson-Paige. The nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a report on children in the digital age, from Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit focused on establishing equity and quality in early education, include suggestions for spending screen-free time with kids.
Children are naturally observant and keep their neurons firing by drawing connections between things they see in the world around them all the time, say Mannis.
Adults can promote these innate behaviors by listening to their kids’ running commentary and keeping the conversation going by asking open-ended questions and modeling “I wonder” statements, such as “I wonder if any birds are outside,” says Payne Bryson. Kids can come up with their own statements and this can become a running game.
The important thing for parents and caregivers to remember is that what’s happening with your child’s development during the pandemic is not necessarily permanent “The brain is very adaptive, especially in childhood, and so once kids are back in more enriched environments educationally with peers and those kinds of things, the brain is set up to adapt pretty quickly,” says Payne Bryson. “And so children will take great strides in learning the things that they’ve been missing out on.”