How Chicagoland schools help kids unplug

Classrooms are more connected than ever as schools use technology to teach. At the same time, however, educators are making sure our digital natives explore and learn about the world without devices. Educators seem to agree that a healthy balance is the key, for a variety of reasons.

Intentional use of technology

“We are always talking about balance,” says Sarah Vaughn, director of innovation at The Frances Xavier Warde School in Chicago. She says for a teacher there, balance often comes down to being very intentional about the use of technology.

They observe an annual Day of Unplugging, which Vaughn says helps both teachers and students identify when technology is unnecessary and when it is very helpful. “By taking a step back as a school, it helps think about when we missed devices and would have found them helpful, and also when we use them just out of habit but don’t truly need them,” says Vaughn, who explains that the day is not anti-technology, and more about using it purposefully.

The phrase “high tech, high touch” guides the approach at Catherine Cook School in Chicago, according to Brian Puerling, director of education technology. He calls it “extremely important” to strike a balance between having educational time with and without technology in the classroom.

“We see the value that technology offers in terms of taking down the classroom walls, and using our actual and virtual world as our classroom. At the same time, we place a high value on children using musical instruments, creating with art materials and going on field trips.”

Get outside

Students at the Chicago Friends School in Chicago unplug and spend an hour each day outdoors. Karen Carney, head of school, explains that they do so because research shows that recess is great for bodies.

She also notes that it allows for unstructured social play, which is important to child development, and offers opportunities to interact with and develop a love of nature.

Puerling agrees, noting that Catherine Cook’s Imagination Playground is beneficial for gross motor development and getting children tinkering and designing collaboratively while outdoors.

Parents know that fresh air and open spaces can work wonders on children. The same is true at school.

“We do outside learning whenever we can,” says Elizabeth Blaetz, head of school at Vanguard Gifted Academy in Batavia. For a paleontology unit, she bakes puzzle pieces into dough. She then simulates what a dig would be like and the students go outside, discover the chunks of dough, chisel out the puzzle pieces and then assemble the puzzle, just as paleontologists do with a dinosaur skeleton. “The students gain deeper understanding and have higher level thinking because the information is presented with a hands-on connection,” says Blaetz.

Design Thursday is a weekly afternoon occurrence at The Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove. Students participate in a variety of classes outside the traditional program, including cooking, ethics and outdoor education.

Peter Brown is the chief financial officer and assistant head of school who also teaches the Design Thursday class that includes a challenge course. “It’s rewarding to see kids enjoy their time outside and even more so to see them work together and have those aha moments,” he says.

Face Time paired with screen time

Schools also find that group projects are a good way for students to learn how both in person communication and screen time are important when working towards a goal.

“Devices are great for collaboration but first we have students start with face-to-face conversations so they are actually talking and interacting and sharing ideas. Teachers talk about what are different ways we can brainstorm and when is a good point to start using a Google doc,” says Vaughn.

Skills essential to functioning in a group, such as compromise, articulating thoughts and taking others’ perspectives into account are learned organically through play offline starting at a very early age, Carney notes.

Those same skills are also very important when students start interacting online when they’re older, she says.

Reaching different kinds of learners

Time unplugged can be of benefit to all kinds of learners.

For kids who learn kinesthetically, painting a timeline or acting out a story can be a hands-on project that make the concepts clear to the students. Kids can really relate to the information in a way that they don’t when reading words in the text, says Blaetz.

Brown says: “Our students are learning in a way that works best for them. Some kids learn so much better when they are using their hands. We have flexibility so we can take advantage of their learning style and maximize their development.”

This article originally published in Chicago Parent’s Making the Grade 2020 print edition. Read the rest of the issue here.

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