In The Before Time, back-to-school was always a season of excitement and anticipation; this year feels… different. Like a lot of parents, I have a healthy dose of anxiety about this school year, and my kids seem a little at sea about how to feel.
Springtime distance-learning was a hot mess in our house. With three kids in virtual classrooms and a preschooler now at home, managing schooling alongside my own work commitments was overwhelming. As the unofficial family point-person for all things education, I made the executive decision that we needed to re-think our fall strategy. First step: create a new home environment for distance-learning, in the hopes of bringing some of that back-to-school magic into our family room, in lieu of the classroom.
All in all, the process of creating our learning space took about one week. Our main obstacle was finding the time and emotional bandwidth to tackle one. more. thing. I sat with my thoughts on the matter for a few weeks before taking the plunge, ultimateIy guided by the following parameters that might be helpful to others looking to set up a space of their own.
Find a Spot Just for School
Last year, my kids did schoolwork at our dining room table. My husband, working remotely, took his conference calls at the same table, or out on the back porch if needing quiet. I plopped myself down anywhere I could find a spot. Altogether, it meant that my kids ended up doing their work on the couch, in their rooms, or wherever fit their fancy. “School” time blurred into their play time, muddling the boundaries in their minds. I knew we needed a designated zone for learning this fall so that their mindset (and mine) could shift to taking distance-learning more seriously.
In our case, we settled on converting a portion of our family room, a central area in our home that is right near the kitchen. There were some sacrifices: we did away with our kitchen table, nixed a storage cupboard, and purged toys the kids had outgrown. After rearranging the furniture, the process cleared an entire wall for our new classroom space. Others I know have had success converting closets, portions of guest rooms, basement corners, or long hallways. If possible, find a spot that you can dedicate solely to learning.
Using wallpaper was a simple way to define the borders of our school area, giving it a different feel than the rest of the house. Wallpaper has come a long way since the 80’s. Peel-and-stick options are easy enough to install and the designs are modern and fun. We chose to only do a portion of the wall for aesthetic reasons, but it’s also a nice cost-saving measure. The small change gave a simple boost to our new space.
If You Have Multiple Kids, Consider How to Manage Simultaneous Lessons
Once our district indicated there will be synchronous learning times, I knew we needed a space where all three of my school-age kids could work simultaneously. My husband, who thankfully enjoys woodworking, proposed a long, skinny desk along the wall, deep enough to comfortably hold their Chromebooks, but not as deep as a standard desk. He took a few days to make what has turned out to be the highlight of this project.
While custom tables might not be in the cards for everyone, a long, skinny desk can help with space-saving if you have two or more kids doing virtual school at once. Consider Ikea, search Facebook Marketplace or your local Buy Nothing group, or setting up a slim folding table could do the trick.
Create a “Home” for Schoolwork and School Supplies
It’s easiest to stay organized if every item has a place to land. Pencils need a pencil container. Headphones need a headphone bucket. Papers need a paper basket. And kids’ schoolwork – now that lockers and backpacks are no longer part of the equation – needs a home, as well.
My answer to a place for schoolwork was a simple wall-mounted filing system that holds folders and notebooks for each kid. This means they will have a specific place to store paperwork and projects, which can eventually be archived in binders or a filing cabinet.
I also repurposed some old shelves we had on-hand to accommodate all the different containers needed for school supplies. I had made a handful of fabric baskets last year that were going unused, so I set them out to hold calculators, scissors, glue, and other items. From my vendor events (sadly no longer happening), I had some metal tins that were perfect for storing paint supplies and colored pencils. This way, the kids have obvious places to return their supplies and hopefully things won’t start to stack up on the table.
Check Your Lighting and Electricity Access
Times are tough for our kiddos (and their parents), so it was important to me that their school zone be bright and cheerful. We intentionally chose the wall with a window, made sure the area was well-lit, and went with colors that will stay upbeat when the inevitable Portland rain starts. I also love plants and firmly believe they make every space happier, so I seized the opportunity to bring in plants from other rooms and added some new air plants.
Another trick was to drill some holes in the desk for wires to pass through. If you don’t have this possibility, it’s a good idea to map out how you are going to run computer chargers, desk lamp plugs, and any other electrical items in your new zone. In fact, taking a good long look at outlets BEFORE setting up your station might save you some headache down the line.
Hang Up a Visible Schedule
It is true that kids thrive on routine, and I have one child in particular who is obsessed with calendars, clocks, and anything that can help him set expectations for the day. I see this as a mostly healthy way for him to ease anxiety, and it’s important to me that we keep everything as stress-free as possible this fall. I still don’t know what their days will look like just yet, but I included an area to hang up individual schedules within eyesight of all kids. I also hope that having the schedule available will make my children (particularly the older ones) less inclined to ask me what their next step is, so they can take ownership of their own schooling and time management.
Consider Your Thoughts on Our Unknown Timeline
I know that none of us have a crystal ball, but ask yourself how long you expect virtual schooling will be your reality. Some hopefuls think this season will pass by wintertime; many think it will be much more long-term. Your answer may help you decide how much time and effort you want to put into setting up a schooling space.
Part of what made the spring so unbearable was that I threw together a quick plan, knowing that summer was juuuuust around the corner. However, this fall has me feeling some big feelings about just how long this situation may actually last, and those thoughts motivated me to actually invest some time into our setup.
I consider our new learning space semi-permanent: we did it on a budget and mostly repurposed items we already had on-hand, in a way that can easily be reversed. At the same time, we are prepared to keep this space as a designated classroom area for a year or more.
Have you set up an area in your home for distance-learning? What tips do you have for other families?