Her toddler-like eagerness and intense seriousness about the task at hand combine to make her look, for a moment at least, exactly her age, which she will proudly tell you is 6-and-a-half years old. She pushes up the sleeves of her purple fleece pullover sweatshirt and then grins at me with confident, excited eyes. She is crouched precariously at the edge of a large and very muddy ditch on the side of an empty dirt road. She slowly lowers an old plastic water bottle down into the muck and watches as small black wiggling dots are sucked into the bottle. Tadpoles. She screws on the lid and carefully holds the bottle up to watch these wondrous little creatures dart chaotically through the soft milky-brown liquid. She carefully clutches the crinkly plastic bottle as I load her into her booster seat, a reminder that even though I sometimes catch my breath marveling at how much she has grown, she is still very young. Her shoes are still fastened with Velcro, and her prized icy-blue Elsa bike still has training wheels. She is, in many ways, still so very little. But today, her curiosity propels her into the world like a NASA rocket, and I realize just how quickly she is growing up. All the way home, she examines her beloved new treasures, quick-firing questions from the backseat. “What do tadpoles eat?” and “how long does it take them to turn into frogs?” Later that evening, we research these topics together on my phone as I tuck her into bed, discovering that tadpoles love boiled lettuce, cucumber slices, and dandelion greens, and that depending on the temperature it can take seven to 12 weeks for them to fully transform.

The next morning, she asks, “Mommy, can you print me some worksheets about tadpoles? Can I make a book about how tadpoles turn into frogs?” and I sigh and gently say, “Sure, sweetie, we can do that . . . after you finish your schoolwork.”

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Schoolwork for her, these days, means watching assigned videos online and struggling to sit still while her daddy and I repeatedly urge, then command, her to focus and complete the day’s math and reading. Like so many families across the country, we are crisis-schooling at home. Crisis-schooling has become my chosen term for it, since home-schooling implies a level of choice, preparation and ability that doesn’t accurately reflect our current situation.

My husband and I both work full time. We are attorneys; he runs his own firm while also running a nonprofit conservation land trust. I work full time, do some freelance writing and am running for office. So it is fair to say that even though we are housebound due to COVID-19, our days are still full of deadlines, conference calls, Zoom meetings and frustrating attempts to tune out the household distractions enough to concentrate and work. This has made it incredibly difficult to educate our children. Our school district is using a new online curriculum and getting my daughter to do the work requires a parent to sit with her full time to keep her on task and help her navigate the program. We tried letting her work alone but soon discovered that even at 6 years old, she knew how to fast-forward through the video lessons and skip online assignments she wasn’t interested in completing. A friend in another school district recently found her 10-year-old daughter playing with the dog instead of participating in a Zoom lesson with her class. Her daughter nonchalantly explained that she had simply taken a screenshot of herself “paying attention,” cropped it, and then set it as her background. “It’s a gallery view of 20 kids, mom. They can’t tell.”

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So like most parents who are trying desperately to meet work deadlines, keep our jobs, and keep food on the table, my husband and I have let some of the assigned schoolwork slide. We haven’t totally given up yet — we still dutifully log on so that we can coax, nag and badger our child into completing at least one or two lessons each day. But we are days, possibly even weeks behind, and I can’t shake the feeling that I am failing at this. I’m running for school board, for goodness sakes! Shouldn’t I at least be able to get my first-grader to do her homework? That’s the inner monologue in my head. But even as I commiserate with friends in never-ending text messages about how impossible it seems to educate our children at home while also working, I can sense that something surprising and wonderful is happening; my little girl is blossoming in this new world of unstructured free time.

My daughter is living the 1980s summers of my youth, playing with her dolls, creating magazine collages, dressing her younger brother up in elaborate costumes, building fairy gardens in the backyard, and catching fireflies because we have also given up on enforcing an early bedtime. She is finally able to enjoy her favorite cartoons without parents harping about “screen time.” She has been composing songs using musical instruments created from household items. She has meticulously recorded the weight of every piece of fruit, bag of rice and canned good in our kitchen using an old food scale that was gathering dust in the pantry. She has planted native wildflower seeds in our yard, taught our dog new tricks and made her own elaborate picture books. She and her little brother, who is too young to have any assigned schoolwork but who still wants to be part of the action, have played hours and hours of “school,” with her as the teacher and him as the pupil, and it often seems more engaging and educational than the canned videos she is required to watch each day. They have staged elaborate theatrical productions in our living room and uninhibited, convulsive dance parties in the kitchen. My children have squealed with excitement as they watched bats dart through the evening sky, built couch-cushion forts and learned to hit a baseball. They have practiced their spelling by writing encouraging messages on the sidewalk with chalk and have worked on their math skills by counting the change they collected from between the couch cushions. I know it isn’t going to earn them any state-sanctioned academic credit, but I know without hesitation they are learning. They are learning as they study the bugs unearthed in a flowerpot and as they carefully measure each ingredient while baking banana bread with their dad.

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For the first time in my children’s lives, they are not being rushed to put on shoes or get out the door. There are no scheduled piano lessons or gymnastics classes for which we cannot be late. No standardized tests. No carpools or playdates or summer day-camps that we frantically booked months in advance. Daycare kids since they were in diapers, my kids have never before known this sort of freedom. They are quickly getting used to always having both mom and dad at home. Now, there are no late meetings, community events or dinners with friends to keep us away at bedtime.

It’s not all sunshine and roses; parenting young kids always comes with a heaping side of frayed nerves, whining, messes and tears. But we have found moments of togetherness in the chaos. I read aloud each evening to my kids after baths and before their eyelids become too heavy and they drift off to sleep. When she is sleeping, snuggling her precious stuffed turtle and sometimes still wearing the same pajamas she woke up in, my daughter often looks much more like the baby I remember than the big kid she is quickly becoming. But if I could see her dreams, I would bet they are technicolor adventures these days — her mind racing to unpack the day’s experiences.

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When we aren’t forcing her to sit at the computer to do schoolwork, our first-grader is thriving. Her personality has changed — she is more confident and silly, creative and mature. She speaks more directly, is more independent, and displays an unbridled curiosity about the world around her that has caused us to remark that she may be a budding scientist in the making. But when we try to enforce structure and schoolwork, she cries or becomes sullen and defiant. Each day, it takes a bit longer to get her to sit down at the computer, and each lesson requires a bit more correction and sharp reprimands to keep her on task. Eventually, she finds new ways to wiggle away from us and escape, and so, each day, as my husband and I keep trying to meet our own work deadlines, our sweet, diligent, good student falls farther behind, at least as measured by our school district’s metrics for how she should be learning.

And so, as a coping mechanism, I guess, we have slowly begun to let go of our guilt and anxiety about keeping up with online schoolwork. We have made peace with letting our kids just be kids for a while, and it seems to be working. I see it in my daughter’s breathless excitement explaining the life cycle of a frog to her astonished and somewhat skeptical little brother. I see it in her pride and sense of accomplishment after helping us prepare dinner. And with each day, I become less worried about whether we have checked all the necessary boxes for her to earn school credit for the hours she spent exploring, creating, learning and experiencing.

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I have no idea if this is good education policy, and I am not trying to present it as such. My family may be doing exactly the wrong thing, and maybe we will come to regret not taking a hardline approach to making sure she completes her AMI work. I kind of doubt it, but I have no idea what the future holds. Right now, we are taking Queen Elsa’s sage advice to just “let it go.” Our guilt and our stress over AMI work, our worries about whether she is keeping up: letting it go is the only workable solution. And it is having a positive though entirely unintended consequence. Our kids are flourishing as we ease up on trying to recreate school at home.

For so many families, ours included, this has been a time of stress, anxiety, and fear. And for weeks we have focused, understandably, on how much our children are struggling to adjust to these new realities. They miss their teachers and friends, are worried about this scary new virus that they can’t fully understand and are absorbing our own despair and uncertainty despite our best efforts to shield them. For others, this has been a time of deep grief — the loss of jobs and loved ones is devastating. Every family’s story is different, but most families I know are somewhere along an arc of first stressing desperately about trying to make sure their children complete the assigned online work and then slowly finding an uneasy balance in which they eventually make peace with not being able to keep up.

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And in so doing, many of us are unintentionally engaging in a huge, nationwide experiment in “unschooling,” as it is called. Lack of daily structure, it turns out, is an entire educational movement that focuses instead on “child-led learning.” Here in Arkansas, we fought hard a year ago to get just 40 minutes per day of unstructured free play time (recess) for elementary students. Forty minutes in a seven-hour school day; it was seen as groundbreaking then but somehow seems shockingly little now that we are all struggling to keep our children focused and on task for even short stretches of AMI work. During the fight for adequate recess time, we cited overwhelming scientific evidence that free play and unstructured socialization helped young brains develop in a way that was quantitatively proven to benefit their later academic performance. What will that mean for our kids who now have hours on end of unstructured free play time each day?

And what will this entire experience mean for the future of education — both in the short-term next school year (how far behind will students have fallen) and in the long-term (you can bet that this generation of kids will be studied and analyzed to determine whether this period of prolonged “unschooling” has any impact on their long-term academic achievement)? As so many of us try to make sense of what we have observed in our own children during this break, will this fundamentally reshape how we view elementary education? How will this experience shape our kids, not just academically but emotionally and culturally? There are so many what-ifs. Will we ultimately look back and regret our failure to maintain consistent and structured education at home during the crisis, or will we view this break as a brief and unexpected moment of freedom from the normal rigors of modern-day childhood? When the economy “reopens,” will we again rush to fill out children’s schedules with “enrichment” activities, or will we see more value to the kind of unstructured free time they now have?

For my first-grader and her little brother, learning from home looks like tadpoles and “Star Wars,” handwritten letters and postcards, and cartwheels in the soft grass of our backyard. This pandemic is, for my young student, a time of mandatory online classes and frustrated, stressed parents insisting that she sit still and learn, but it is also a time of free play, togetherness and unparalleled creativity. Boredom, after all, is the birthplace of imagination, and this may be the first time that we have ever truly given our children the gift of being really bored. The other day, bored to the point of tears and tantrums, my daughter suddenly disappeared off to her room and was suspiciously quiet for a long while. Nervous about what I might find, I went to check and discovered that she and her brother had constructed an elaborate setting straight out of one of their favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder books: a log cabin, a horse-drawn covered wagon, a barn and corral, even a small garden, all made with painstaking detail from cardboard, paper and tape. My children’s physical world has gotten much smaller — they are trapped at home for weeks on end — but their days have suddenly expanded, blissfully free and full of possibility.

I know that there are real reasons for us to worry about the children in our state: the ones who are hungry or may be experiencing abuse or neglect, the ones who need vital services that they are not getting. The ones who have lost a parent or loved one or are sick themselves. But all of our worry and parental guilt about whether we are properly educating our kids at home right now is unnecessary. The kids are alright. Take a close look; they are excelling at the youthful art of learning through play. While the whole world panics, our children are finding their own way to move forward with the work of childhood, which is to experience, observe, question, try and learn. And in a strange and unpredictable plot twist, this horrific pandemic has temporarily given our overly scheduled kids a sweet taste of the slow and unstructured childhood that we all remember so fondly.

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