September is finally here: back-to-school time! A time of year usually reserved for new binders and pencils and markers and notebook paper might be exactly like that for some of us — but for others, it’s back to the laptop, or the desktop, or the iPad. In any event, it’s back to learning, which we in “Giftedland” know to be the Promised Land of happy, engaged kids.

Remote learning has made everyone adapt

Teachers have adapted their lessons and their teaching styles, having been able to spend the summer learning about best practices in their discipline/grade level from teachers nationwide who were all submerged in concentrated online teaching with no notice. (Luckily, teachers are very resourceful, helpful people by nature, and thus inclined to be generous with their discoveries — for example, did you know that you can use a pen, a CD, and tape to make your very own document scanner/whiteboard for teaching via Zoom? Awkward on-screen annotation, begone!)

Parents, goodness knows, have adapted their schedules and even the spaces inside their homes. And students? Generally speaking, they have adapted more easily, as kids are wont to do; they are pretty comfortable on digital devices to begin with, which helps, but that doesn’t mean we’re home-free.

What about…
Parents still worry about remote learning, which may not be completely foreign territory now, but still generates a lot of questions: What about all the research that warns parents about screen time? What about the blue light? What about the sitting still?

All of these questions are good ones. And all of them are reflective of parents who care about their children’s well-being, both social-emotional and intellectual. And to a large degree, all of them really only apply to what some now (only partly) jokingly call “the before times.”

It seems reasonable to assert that they just don’t apply at the moment.

That’s not to say that these are not important considerations — they certainly are — but these are difficult, confusing, and most definitely weird times, and consequently, the rules must be different. Our expectations for ourselves as parents must be different.

Well, yes, says every anxious parent, but still: what about screen time?

The answer is this: the pandemic is, thankfully, a temporary situation; we will not be in this strange situation forever. As such, every family must bend “before times” rules to meet their current conditions.

How to inject reality into remote learning

There are things you can do to mitigate the effects of your child spending extended periods of time learning on a computer screen (feel free to share these with your colleagues at your next Zoom/Meetup/Meets/Skype meeting!):

Remote learning tip: 20-20-20

  • 20/20/20 — Every 20 minutes, LOOK UP for 20 seconds, at an object 20 feet away. This simple instruction requires your eyes to refocus at a different distance than the screen, and will reduce eyestrain. Set an alarm on their phone (or on the computer, itself) for these brief breaks — and for reference, 20 feet is about the length or width of a 2-car garage.
  • Feeling blue — Blue light does, in fact, affect our brains, and computer screens shine with more blue than natural sunlight because our brains perceive that shift as brighter, more like very white paper. Blue light also increases your attention and brighten your mood. However, exposure to an entire day of blue light can suppress your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone involved in our natural sleep-wake cycle, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Conveniently, the effects of a day-long bath in school-issued blue light can be mitigated with blue-light blocking glasses — you can buy fancy ones that selectively block blue light, or you can buy cheap sunglasses with orange lenses that will do the same thing. You can also find apps for computers and for phones/iPads that change the tone of the screen to a more neutral color on a daily timer (which will appear more orange).
  • Move it — Despite its obvious appeal for teachers, sitting still all day is not great for the human body, for both structural and cardiovascular reasons. When your school offers a break between classes, have your child use it for movement and a change of scenery. Honestly, getting up to use the bathroom and/or walking outside with the dog for just a few minutes is an improvement. After school is over, give them a reason to go outside (dogs come in handy again, here), even if just for a brief period of time. Inquisitive-but-indoorsy gifted children can be pointed to research, even: studies show that as little as 2 hours a week of exposure to nature — whether the backyard, a local park, or genuine wilderness — is “not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.” This comment is from Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, and is reported in this article; the study establishing 2 hours as a hard cutoff — literally, people who did not meet that threshold showed no benefits —  can be read here.

Note that cheap orange plastic lenses will perform just fine for this purpose during the day, but are not designed for blocking only blue light; they will block other colors of light, as well, making them inadequate for long periods of screen time indoors at night. In that case, the more expensive glasses that only block blue light are more appropriate. Conveniently for our wallets, though, school is a daytime adventure, so students can probably get plenty of benefit from cheapo plastic lenses from the drugstore.

Permission granted

Hippocrates is credited with originating the concept of “tough times call for tough measures,” and it’s comforting to know that 2400 years ago, ancient Greeks needed this kind of aphorism about their lives, too. These are undoubtedly “tough times,” in many different ways.

However, I propose that we amend Hippocrates’s assertion a bit: extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. For the record, my first instinct was to write “weird times call for weird measures.” I’m fairly sure no one would argue with that characterization. 

Happily, parents of gifted children are already fluent in “extraordinary” (especially measures of this type, as they are often precisely what their extraordinary children need). Perhaps they are better equipped to accept the new ersatz schoolhouse in their dining room or guest room or office — because they are also likely to have already acceded to housing a ludicrous number of books… or lizards… or books about lizards… or trains… or computer parts (etc., etc.). Parents of gifted children are already quite familiar with working hard to adapt the world for their children as much as humanly possible, after all.

So it stands to reason that for now, the rules can be bent a little to suit your needs. Make things work for your children, who you know better than anyone, after all. Consider this your official permission slip to let your concerns about screen time sit on the sidelines for a little while.

Make them wear silly orange sunglasses (tell them they have heat vision like Superman).

Make them look up every 20 minutes (tape up an especially silly picture 20 feet away).

Make them take the dog outside to get the mail (because: dog).

And perhaps most of all, make yourself believe that while screen time for the school day may not be the thing you love most about your life at the moment, it’s okay. If they’re engaged, if they’re learning, and they’re happy, that’s enough.

In fact, given the times in which we live, perhaps that is, in fact, extraordinary.

Jill Williford Wurman, the author of this post, is our Director of Research and Ersatz Librarian who is happily delivering books and reading resources to our students who are learning from home remotely.

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