For parents overwhelmed by glut of online activities for kids, there are ways to personalize options

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Beth Jennings, a University of Utah assistant librarian works from the front porch of their Salt Lake City home on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 as her daughters play out front. When schools began closing due to the coronavirus, hundreds of activities began popping up to give parents something to do with their kids while they are stuck at home. For many, finding and navigating through those tools has become a headache and a deterrent. Jennings was one of those parents, so she started compiling and organizing some of the best free links in one place.

The first week after Utah schools were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Barbara Crockett got a wild hair. So after her two boys, ages 5 and 8, finished their schoolwork, she queued up a YouTube video of author and illustrator Mo Willems teaching viewers how to draw his famous Piggie, Gerald the elephant and Pigeon characters.

It did not go well. One boy quickly lost interest and wandered away. When he returned, he got upset his drawings weren’t as good as his brother’s, and they started fighting.

Crockett had searched for the video — one of hundreds of online resources that have popped up to keep kids entertained while they’re stuck at home — with the hope it would buy her a few minutes of peace. Instead, it left her with a headache matched in strength only by the one she gets when she considers searching online for another preferably free and perhaps educational kid-friendly activity.

“Half the problem is, too, you see so many things while going about your daily stuff of what you can do, but you don’t think to write it down,” Crockett, of Midvale, said. “So just the going back and forth, that trying to figure out where that was, that’s intimidating and frustrating.”

As soon as states started sending their students home in early March, everyone from Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley to actor Glenn Close to Hogle Zoo and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam started offering tools to keep quarantined kids busy. Activities range from virtual walking tours to building robots to hip-hop dance classes to podcasts and papier-mache art projects. When it comes to storytimes alone, parents can pick books read by celebrities, astronauts and even drag queens.

Suffice it to say, it’s a lot to sift through.

Parents generally like the idea of engaging in such activities. Some would like to virtually visit Zion National Park with their kids. Others just need something entertaining enough to give them time to take a work call or get dinner in the oven.

Yet the idea of trying to slice through the noise to find something their kids will actually enjoy has left many parents tossing up their hands and just turning on “Frozen II” for the umpteenth time.

“It’s a weird time right now. You’re trying to figure out how to feed everybody, but also your kids are standing there and they’re bored,” said Beth Jennings, an assistant librarian and adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah law school. “It doesn’t feel like those things should go together right now, but sometimes they do.”

Jennings found herself in that position as she and her wife, a middle school teacher, tried to work from home full time while also caring for their two kids, Hazel, 10, and Hollis, 7. One day, after spending way too long scrolling through Facebook looking for an idea she’d once seen, Jennings started making a list of ideas. Then, she realized she shouldn’t keep it to herself.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Beth Jennings helps her daughter Hollis, 7, get up to their self described "ninja slack line or obstacle course thingie," in their front yard in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. When schools began closing due to the coronavirus, hundreds of activities began popping up to give parents something to do with their kids while they are stuck at home. For many, finding and navigating through those tools has become a headache and a deterrent. Jennings, a University of Utah assistant librarian, was one of those parents, so she started compiling and organizing some of the best free links in one place.

She was already compiling an online guide for food, housing and utilities assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic for the university. Her activity list felt like a natural addition.

It’s divided into links for STEM, books and audiobooks, museums and zoos, podcasts, streaming videos and physical activities. Most of the resources come from nonprofits or government agencies, Jennings said. All of them are free.

“For me, that was the driving force behind making this list, is to have all the links all in one place. It wouldn’t take me Googling,” Jennings said. “Part of the reason I chose categories is because I don’t have to Google it. If you choose a discrete topic, you’re much more likely to get something back.”

The U.’s guide isn’t divided by age, yet. That is something another group, the Utah Education Network, is doing with its resource list, though.

UEN, the state-funded support and training entity for all Utah schools, has been compiling educational resources for teachers for more than 25 years. When parents became the teachers, it quickly moved those tools to a website that’s more easily navigable by the general public.

More education-focused, it divides information by subject (math, science, literacy, test prep) and by age group. It also has sections on things to do (like national parks tours, virtual prom and artists’ workshops) and how to talk to kids about the coronavirus.

“It’s kind of meant to quell a lot of anxiety and frustrations that not only parents are having, but students and teachers as well,” said Dani Sloan, an instructional technology trainer for UEN and mother to a first grader, “and to pull together resources that are not only free but reliable.”

UEN’s Learn at Home site launched just two days after Gov. Gary Herbert ordered a soft closing of schools on March 13. In its first two weeks, she said, it got 15,000 hits. Sloan attributes that traffic to parents looking for a copilot as they chart the course of their children’s education in this unusual time.

She has firsthand knowledge of that plight, as she and her husband work from home while trying to care for their son, Teddy.

“Especially in the first week, we were all feeling this overwhelming resource fatigue,” she said. “Everyone was trying to be so helpful. This person is doing this at noon. This person is reading a story out loud. This person is offering drawing."

The UEN site takes some of the best of those and puts them in one place, she said.

“It’s carefully curated,” Sloan said. “It’s not everything on the internet. You’re not going to get the fire hose.”

Crockett worked as a substitute nutritional aide for the Canyons School District before students were sent home. She said she hasn’t tried looking online much since the drawing debacle. Instead, she usually turns the kids loose outside with their three dogs.

She would be willing to try looking online again, she said, especially now that students will not return to school buildings until at least next fall. Honestly, though, she would rather someone else figure it out for her.

That’s exactly what a couple local of libraries also have offered to try to do. Through both the University of Utah and the Salt Lake City library (starting Monday), parents — or anyone, really — can ask a librarian to help them cultivate a more customized list of activities or resources.

Still, if navigating the online options becomes too onerous, both Jennings and Sloan advised just forgetting it. Do whatever works best for you and your family, they advised.

“I would say for parents, if it’s going to take you more than three seconds to figure out and it’s not required by a teacher, then move along,” Sloan said. “This is a crazy time. Find something easier that’s going to teach them some interesting and cool.”

Parents’ online resource guides

University of Utah guide: Links divided into categories and subcategories; includes thorough descriptions; good for entertainment and educational purposes.

Utah Education Network: Resources for parents, students and teachers; can be categorized according to age/grade; primarily educational resources including textbooks.



Some of the most interesting free online resources state librarians have found for kids: