Back to School In The Year of COVID-19

Tower Hill School in Wilmington, DE where the author went from PK-12th Grade

The traditional Back to School season is a big time for most kids. Like the calendar New Year, it’s a time for a new beginning, a time of adventure and looking forward with excitement about what may lie ahead.

Even if they’re going back to a physical school, this year’s Back to School is like none we’ve ever experienced since the 1920s when mandatory public education began in the United States. A time of new clothes, new outlooks, reconnecting with old friends, the excitement of a new grade and much more have all been damped down by Coronavirus.

For kids who are starting the year with remote learning, it’s even tougher. After more than five months of lockdown and limited movement, nerves are on edge, there’s a lot of stress, and there’s a lot of uncertainty. While it’s difficult for everyone, it’s particularly difficult for younger kids. Here are some things parents can do make it easier for kids who may feel like they’re going back to school in The Upside Down (to quote Stranger Things.)

Create kid-friendly structure.

Trinity College, Dublin

All kids are different, so it’s important to know what works for your individual child. Kids, especially preschoolers, are not able to spend hours at a time in front of a screen. Make sure you have plenty of breaks that encourage some kind of gross motor/physical activity, which helps concentration. For instance, kids can only pay attention for about 5 minutes per year. So a 5 year-old is really able to pay attention for about 25 minutes before needing a break. Don’t be shy about engaging your kids’ teachers more often about the unique challenges that come up in these situations.  You may also want to create rituals/practices around starting the school day so there is consistency, which is really good for younger children.

Provide social outlets.

One of the real problems with home learning is that kids are missing social time with friends and classmates. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is critical for kids, particularly from Kindergarten through the elementary grades. Provide things like games that kids can play with siblings or over video chat to develop these skills as best as possible till we can all be together again.

Think about stress relief.

The classic Fisher-Price School Bus

Kids may not always exhibit symptoms of anxiety, but as mentioned above, these are anxious times for everyone…parents, too. After all, there are no models or past experience to draw on as we negotiate this time. Quiet activities such as arts & crafts and narrative-based play allow kids to change their foci and work out issues that may arise for them.


Let kids be in charge…of some things.

Parents are trying to work at home, family life is disrupted, people are on edge. One way to combat some of this is to give kids expanded responsibilities and opportunities to lead the activity. Depending on their ages, kids can do things like get their own breakfast or lunch, help with chores or create family activities. Trusting kids to be “run the show” on some activities may be a stretch for some parents, but it can pay off in terms of confidence and a stronger family identity.

(Scroll down for more thoughts on what you may encounter in the coming weeks.)

Where Toys Come Into (Pardon the Pun) Play

 Toys and play at this time can be especially valuable—and not just for relaxation and stress relief, though those are important and necessary things for kids.

As they try to negotiate the unprecedented challenges of this time, between keeping their own lives going and parenting and teaching and, of course worrying, it may come as a relief to parents to recognize that all play has a learning component to it.

A classic learning game from the author’s collection.

Experiential play allows kids to develop skills and go from engagement to mastery. Toys that support that kind of exploration help kids build the intellectual and cognitive connections that will help them acquiring other academic disciplines.

There can be toys that are designed to build specific skills, and when those are presented in a fun format kids want to engage in over time, there can be many positive outcomes.

Most importantly, physical play is one way to balance the monotony of largely passively staring at a screen. Humans learn in many different ways, and kinesthetic (or physical) learning is an important complement to sitting still and trying to absorb information. We simply aren’t designed to do that, and that’s why it’s encouraging to see many progressive elementary schools structure classrooms to encourage kids to be mobile and not sit in rows at desks from first bell to going home.

From a physiological sense, kids’ attention and focus are improved when they can have periods of activity to complement sitting still.

Unfortunately, since none of us has lived through anything like this before, there really are no previous models to draw on. We’re all learning together. As with anything that’s new and needs to be learned, there will be successes and there will be times when things fall short of the ideal. As with learning, the challenge is always to keep going and celebrate progress and each incremental “win.”

Toys with Learning to Add to Your Toy Box

 We know that people have been buying lots of toys this year. Sales are actually up more than 46 percent for the first six months of the year, versus 2019. There’s always room for novelty, however. Here are some toys you might want to consider as you head into this new (totally) school year as you look for ways to support learning through play.

edx Geometry set inspires discovery and learning

Coolest Manipulatives Line: edx
Ages 18-months to grade school
Prices vary from about $12 and up.
Find Out More
This U.K.-based company has so many amazing toys that you’ll probably lose yourself in their web site. They emphasize manipulatives, exploratory learning, and discovery. From beautiful design to highly tactile pieces, these are great for kids to interact with as they discover basic concepts. Even kids as young as 18 months will find these toys engaging and empowering. You’ll find a lot of classic learning, plus outstanding design and sophistication.

A jumping off place for creative storytelling!

Great for Narrative-Based Play: Novelmore Fortress from Playmobil
Ages 8 and up.
Where to Buy
Narrative-based play stimulates creativity, reinforces language skills and can help kids relieve stress and process the complex emotions of what they’re going through. Stories really do help. We like the Novelmore line because it’s a classic theme of knights and adventure, and kids can imagine themselves as heroes (or villains) as they make up their own tales of adventure…starring them. We’ve shown the Fortress here, but there are lots of different sets at different price points, and Playmobil has many different themes that all promote narrative-based plays.


The world at your fingertips with this interactive globe.

For Kids Curious About The World: Magic Adventures Globe from LeapFrog
Ages 5 and up.
Where to Buy
Playing with a globe is such a great classic learning activity as kids are always eager to discover the world. LeapFrog makes the process exciting, immersive and interactive. The 10-inch globe includes a stylus that when tapped to areas on the globe unlocks all kinds of features from language to cultures to videos that you can see on the video screen in the base. There are also games and activities to keep kids playing and learning.


Highly visual, social fun…even from a distance.

Fun for Social Play: The Upside Down Challenge from Vango
Ages 8 and up.
Where to Buy
“The world turned upside down…” Quotes from Hamilton notwithstanding, this is a really terrific social game, and one you can even play on videoconference. Put on the goggles, and you’ll see everything upside down, and now that you’re discombobulated, try to do all kinds of crazy challenges, like drawing, writing your name and more. Because this game is all about visuals, and because it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch other people struggle with the challenges, when players on either end of a videochat both have goggles, you can go crazy…from a distance.

Build, play, design with this versatile, ingenious game.


Good Choice for Budding Engineers/Coders: Gridopolis from Gridopolis
Ages 8 years and up.
Where to Buy
This is easily one of the most ingenious games we’ve found this year, and to support learning, it covers design, planning, dimensional thinking and much more. Part of the trend for STEM without Screens, players are exploring, learning and challenging themselves. It’s easy to learn but has lots of variations that will keep kids engaged. Plus, there are lesson plans parents or teachers can download from the Gridopolis site to reinforce lots of different educational disciplines, including many levels of game design.

Lots of ways to experiment and learn in this cool set.


For the Curious Scientist: VR Science Lab from Abacus Brands
Ages 8 and up.
Where to Buy
This kid includes 25 science projects with step-by-step instructions that come alive in augmented and virtual reality  This comprehensive STEAM science kit combines physical science experiments with immersive digital technology! With augmented reality, the character Professor Maxwell appears on the book to introduce the projects, then follow each step as pictures turn into videos to guide you through each experiment. Then, put on the VR goggles and teleport to a virtual world to connect the science with real life examples! We liked the different ways of interacting with the kit and the immersive learning.

Can you figure out which pet is the criminal?

Engaging Logic Puzzles: Dog Crimes & Cat Crimes from ThinkFun
Ages 8 and up.
Where to Buy Dog Crimes
Where to Buy Cat Crimes
These are deductive reasoning games where you follow the clues to figure out which pet did the dirty deed, like rip the pillow or tip over the vase.  Designed as a solo game, it helps kids develop skills such as sequencing, relationships and problem solving while considering a variety of variables. It’s an excellent foundation for other math operations, and there are various different levels of difficulty. We found the hardest ones a challenge!

A version of the hit puzzle game just for preschoolers!


Great Preschool Puzzle Game: My First Rush Hour from ThinkFun
Ages 3 and up.
Where to Buy
First shape, and color matching meets simple logic challenges in this game where kids match colors and shapes and vehicles to find their way trough a variety of mazes.  You have to drive the toy car through the maze to win. Three levels of difficulty, and the game includes 30 different challenges. This is a preschool version of the classic Rush Hour puzzle, and it’s really great at getting kids thinking, planning and forecasting outcomes on an age-appropriate level.


Group Fun & Stress Relief: Pizza Party Throwdown from Hog Wild
Ages 6 and up.
Where to Buy
Okay, not everything has to be learning, sometimes you just need a mindless fun, and this is just the ticket. It’s is a classic skill and action game where players race to flip their toppings onto the rotating pizza border. You use a launcher to try to get your pieces on the pie, and there are different challenges to make it more difficult and fun. We really like the fast-paced fun and the everybody plays element of it. In a world where social connecting is more challenging than ever, you may want to serve up this game for a slice of silliness.

Get creative, coloring and playing!

Getting Creative: DinoMazing Egg Decorator from Hey Buddy Hey Pal
Ages 3 and up
Where to Buy

Who says egg decorating is just for one time of the year? Get creative with this super fun set that lets you decorate dinosaur eggs. Place the egg in the unit turn it on, and then use the included markers to create great patterns. Once you’re done, crack your egg open and dig through the slime to reveal a collectible dino buddy. The set comes with two eggs, and you can buy additional ones. Or…you can always use a regular chicken egg. After all, we know that birds are descended from dinosaurs.


Ready for playful, interactive learning and skill development!

Most Engaging All-In-One Learning Toy: LeapStart Preschool Success from LeapFrog
Ages 2-7 years.
Where to Buy
This may easily become a favorite for active, curious preschoolers. It’s an interactive system that grows with the child and includes books and activities that take kids through basic preschool curricula in language, math, and a variety of topics. Kids use the stylus to touch the pages to bring books to life and keep therm playing and learning. Each book has more than 30 activities, and there are more than 50 skills to practice per grade level. Easy online connection to download more content, too.

Great active play…in a small space.

Competition, Action and Your At-Home Dojo: Break the Board from Yulu 
Ages 6 years and up.
Where to Buy
Well, we’re not sure if you’re going to become a “karate master” as the box says, but we think you’ll have a blast with this. Follow the lights to test your speed and skill, and when you succeed on a level. you’ll break the plastic board…the ultimate karate move. This is great to use lots of energy in a small space, and kids will have a blast with the fantasy of being karate experts. It’s a classic game with a new twist that’s an ideal study break.

Get into the dramatic world of Snap Ships

Inspiring Imaginative, Narrative-Based Play: Snap Ships from PlayMonster 
Ages 8 and up.
$11.99 and and up
Where to Buy
This is an entire line of space ships kids can build and play with, supported by an extensive storyline. the multi-platform play (physical toy, app, YouTube) is designed to actively engage kids in narrative-play, fostering creativity and interaction. Like all play of this nature, it encourages imagination and engagement, and the hierarchy of powers and other features support important learning skills like classification, while the fun and age-appropriate complexity of the Snap Ships world keeps kids playing.

Stock up on these mini-groceries! Fans can’t get enough!

Great for Collecting & Social Play: 5 Surprise Mini Brands from Zuru
Ages 3+
Where to Buy
These have been one of the hottest toys of the year, but if you have kids who are into these, you already know that. Miniatures are consistently fascinating to kids, and the realistic replicas of top brands kids see in stores seem to have an irresistible appeal. Every year, there are a handful of toys that become part of the social interaction of school, and it looks like for 2020, these are it for their fans. It’s not just that they are cute, but kids who are connecting on video chat can share their fandom and provide a level of social connection around these. Series 2 is coming out on September 15, and you’ll want to buy them fast, as these have been a sell-out as soon as they hit the (full size) stores.

We’re continuing to review toys on an almost daily basis as we get ready for the new season. Come back often to see what’s new!

Dealing with this New World

We talk a lot about play and it’s importance to kids, and there are few things kids do that are as effective at helping manage stress, support learning or deliver fun. Still, as we look at the beginning of the most unusual school year, there are a few things to bear in mind that may make it easier for parents and caregivers:

We’ve Never Been Here Before. One of the things that parents always depend on when dealing with kids is the longer perspective of adulthood, so they can at the very least try to be reassuring at times of stress. However, virtually no one alive today has lived through anything like this before, so we’re all in it together. It’s important to be acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. We simply cannot expect kids to make this adjustment on an instant pivot. Remember, it’s only five months since all of this began, and this level of upheaval is traumatic, for everyone involved. It’s important that parents respond with honesty and not try to pretend everything is fine; it’s not.

Leave Room for Grief. Especially older kids who have been in school for a few years may be grieving the loss of what they knew as their lives. While “grief” is a strong word, it applies here. What happens when everything you knew or expected simply vanishes? Don’t be surprised if kids are having a hard time, and that may show up as acting out a little bit. Young kids don’t fully understand their emotions or how to deal with them productively; that’s something that has to be learned over time and experience. Be patient and listen. Help kids articulate what they may not understand.

This is a Process. We’re all learning as we go here. Every child is different so it may take them different times to adapt and accommodate. Just as with adults, there will be good days and bad days. This is normal.

Sadness is Normal, Too. For kids missing their friends, their activities, and things they were looking forward to, sadness comes with the territory. Let them feel it, and listen. Even when sadness persists for several days at a time, there is a distinction between sadness and (clinical) depression. One cure for sadness is human connection. Try to create opportunities for that both within the family and with friends. Allow room for the full range of kids’ emotions, even when it’s difficult for you to watch.

Keep Hope Alive. Looking ahead to when this passes (and it will) can be very healthy. Conversations about what to do when we’re able to be out in the world again safely, trips you want to take, people you want to see can be very helpful. This may be a challenge for some people, but basically you are asking kids to understand that this time is difficult and we surely don’t like it and that there will be better days ahead. Even a glimmer of hope can be effective at turning around moods.

…And Most Importantly…  Be patient. With yourself, with your kids. With the world. Try to let go of your ideas of how things “should” be and honestly face what is happening. One of the things we like to say is “live in ‘what is,’ not ‘what if.'” It’s amazingly powerful and comforting as we move through uncharted, and sometimes upsetting/sometimes fun territory.


Disclosure: Purchase links are to places that had in-stock availability at the time of publication. The Toy Guy does not receive any commission or fees if you purchase through those links.

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