Celebrating your child's first day of school usually means excited (or nervous) kids with backpacks filled with fresh notebooks and unsharpened pencils tumbling out of cars to meet new teachers and friends. This year, for many kids, back to school will be held at home as districts from Los Angeles to Houston to Atlanta have decided to start the school year with virtual instruction, and more districts are likely to follow.
Just because your child's first day of school is online doesn't mean you can't do something special. In fact, this year there's a lot to celebrate! You've survived months of quarantine, your child is starting a new grade, and, they'll still be meeting new teachers and classmates.
Here are 11 ways to celebrate your child's return to the 2020 school year.
Before the First Day of Virtual School
Start counting down the days about two weeks out from the first day of school. This transition time helps children wrap their heads around what will likely be a change in schedule and daily expectations. Create a paper chain for younger children. Each day they can tear off a link to see how many days they have left. For older children, print a calendar and have your child jot down memories from their summer, or things they are grateful for.
Create a Back-to-School Space
Before the first day of school, spend some time creating a space in your home for your child to study. Kimberly Palocsay, teacher at the Ohio Virtual Academy, and parent of an eleventh grader, has her son set up his workspace in their spare room. The space feels like his, and he can close the door on school at the end of the day.
If you don't have a spare area, or if you have multiple children who want to work together, create a way to store school supplies that can be taken out and used at the kitchen table. Stickers and puffy paint are great ways to decorate plastic bins that will store everything from school laptops to pencils and crayons.
Read a Back-to-School Book
This year, instead of focusing on books that take place at school, read books about what you want for your child. In particular, this year your child may find themselves struggling with a lot of things that are new, and books like The Dot and Ish by Peter Reynolds or The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires teach us that we don't have to be perfect to be successful.
Have the Back-to-School Fairy Visit
A back-to-school fairy can deliver school supplies on the first day of school. Who doesn't love new pens, fresh notebooks, and fun erasers—especially when they are delivered in a special way? You can also include a note telling your child how much you believe in him and what you want for him this year.
On the First Day of Virtual School
Whether it's drive-through doughnuts or pancakes in letter shapes, send your child off to virtual learning with a full stomach. And, if your child has to start waking up earlier, a special breakfast can help ease them into the new schedule.
Start a Journaling Tradition
Jamie Martin, homeschooling parent and blogger, suggests starting a journal on the first day of school. With a younger child, this could mean writing and drawing what they remember and liked about each day. For older children, have them reflect on their feelings and what they were challenged by and grateful for.
Why this is helpful? Journaling helps kids see their progress. For younger kids, that can mean moving from on drawing pictures to writing words and sentences. For older kids, that can be how they’re dealing with situations differently over time. A completed journal can also serve as an artifact, something for kids to come back to and remember the unique year.
Every year, when her kids start a new grade, Amber Johnson, who homeschools her four children, makes each of them a shirt with their grade level printed on it. Then, she takes a photo next to a chalkboard with their favorite color, favorite thing to do, favorite food, and goal career. It's fun to go back and see what the kids said from year to year, says Johnson, to see what changes and what stays the same. Photos may already be in your back-to-school routine and there's no reason not to keep taking them!
Leave Them a Note
Encouraging notes are even easier to give your child when they're learning at home. Jot notes for your child on Post-its and place them on their workspace throughout the day. It may be the start of a new virtual learning tradition.
After the First Day of Virtual School
Celebrate With Treats
After school, your child may be elated (one day done!), or disappointed, especially if they're missing in person reunions with friends. Either way, have a special treat like an ice cream sundae ready. Take it a step further and have each topping represent a quality you want them to have—bravery, honesty, integrity, kindness—and talk about what you're excited about for them this school year.
Zoom an After School Play Date
Set up a surprise play date with friends via Zoom so your child can debrief his day with friends. In previous years, Johnson would meet up with other homeschooling families at a library to do a meet-and-greet, perhaps with a Lego STEM challenge. This year, these activities may happen over Zoom or video call instead and that's totally OK.
Set Goals for the Entire Year
Once your child has a day of virtual learning under their belt, sit down with them and talk about what they want to accomplish this year. Start with what your child is already interested in, advises J. Allen Weston, executive director of the National Home Schooling Association. Then, try to incorporate that interest into other areas as well.
At the start of school, it's a good idea to write down a list of those things your child is naturally interested in or questions that they have. Then, as they're getting assignments, find ways to bring in their natural curiosities. At the end of the year, talk about how much they've learned by revisiting their list.
And keep in mind: the start of 2020 may feel anticlimactic or even stressful, but it can also be a great chance to start new traditions and celebrate how far your child, and your family have come!