Using the Internet to Raise Your Children
(It’s going to do it anyway.)
We are parenting in interesting times. Our children are the most media drenched children who have ever lived, navigating their way between addictive games and social media platforms, and a hyperfast news cycle trying at all times to push everyone’s nervous system as hard as possible. Then there’s the regular stresses of school and socialization that plagued us when we were young. But they’re also the smartest people who have ever lived, and able to pluck wonders of human understanding from the ether, form groups that coalesce around ideas in moments, and google their homework answers.
This is one mom’s answer to marshaling that new-found knowledge and smartness for good, and using resources on the net to teach your offspring. It’s not a substitute for schooling, and I am personally not a homeschooler. It’s for supplementing both your kids’ education, and your relationship with them.
Prepare to do work, but fun work. But work.
This isn’t a HOWTO sit your kid down in front of a computer and have them turn into a genius. There is nothing that does that, there is nothing good that doesn’t involve effort from adult caregivers. Education is a conversation between people who care for each other, an energetic passing of culture and skills between generations. It takes our full attention in the moment to do it right, and that’s valuable, even when we don’t have nearly as many moments as we’d like.
Using these resources to educate any kid is a lot of work, and you should set expectations appropriately. During much of this process I was working, struggling to work, dealing with chronic illness, and plenty of the other troubles of adult life. I also didn’t have my child full time, and I only have one child. But it’s important for me to say this has been my main hobby since she was a toddler. I don’t put my kid in front of a screen with some kind of parental control setting that’s supposed to take care of them. I am there, sometimes discussing the material right after, and sometimes pausing part way through to talk about a point before the video moves on. If you can’t do everything, don’t despair. We went long periods without, and sometimes when I was far away we’d have a call just to discuss some bit of economics or history, or even some bit of chemistry.
Education is a conversation between people who care for each other, an energetic passing of culture and skills between generations.
Children love to learn, it’s their purpose as young humans, and anything and everything you can give them helps. I think I probably dropped the ball more times than I carried it, but even what I was able to do has made a world of difference in both of our lives.
Chase your children’s interests
There’s a balance to strike between making sure children are well-rounded and letting them develop and pursue what they’re interested in, but it’s not at all a matter of so much time set aside for each. By letting a child wayfind towards their interests, you also learn what frame will be most effective for other subjects. My daughter loves fantasy and birds, and at first that may not look like a wide range of interests. But fantasy is about world building, and that means it’s about ecosystems, geology, astronomy, cosmology, and pre-modern engineering. It’s also about magical systems, which segues nicely into symbolic logic and even programming. Birds are about evolution, conservation, statistics, animal psychology, the chemistry of pigmentation, geography, and climate, among many other things.
When using music or podcasts, listen together and stop it to discuss, or listen separately and discuss the material afterwards. In both cases, you may find yourself scrambling to do research to answer a kid question, or find a story to give something context. It’s fine to tell your kid you have to look things up, even better if you can show them how you do it. When using something like YouTube (or Wikipedia) that will try to draw you into a hole of infinite next things, it’s vital to stop at the end, switch modes, and discuss or write about the material. Cruising media without pauses feels like learning, but it’s not. If you don’t follow up the information by interacting with it, it’s in one ear and out the other. Redundancy helps, too. If you’re trying to teach your child about elemental particles, choosing a series of YouTube videos from different sources, with pauses each time to discuss them can be great, but the choosing and the pausing, to write or discuss notes, are what makes it learning instead of passive channel surfing.
Kids can learn things on their own without you having to be next to them the whole time, but making this work requires goal setting and study techniques. You teach the study techniques — note taking, summarization, even quizzing — but goal setting has to be a group activity. Kids, like all the other humans, do better when they’re committed to the project, which is why chasing their interests is the most important step to educating them.
What is age appropriate is wildly different from child to child. I like to push mine, but that also means granting a veto on what gets consumed. On the other hand, I have pulled up content I thought was far too advanced for my child and found her glued to the screen, and other stuff I thought was basic that she was lost and annoyed by. I switch back over to the exploring track she likes, and try to come back to the material she isn’t into in another way. You do have to make kids work, but you don’t have to make them suffer.
When using something like YouTube (or Wikipedia) that will try to draw you into a hole of infinite next things, it’s vital to stop at the end, switch modes, and discuss or write about the material. Cruising media without pauses feels like learning, but it’s not.
The more fun this is, the further it goes.
Review these before you try any of them with children. Add your own idea in comment, please! I’m always looking for more to try and to suggest to other parents.
Elementary School Age
They Might Be Giants Kids’ albums: No! Here come the: ABCs, 123s, Science! and Why — Honestly I still enjoy these. (Also findable on YouTube)
Utah Phillips: Folk music with an emphasis on labor history.
Myths & Legends — Fun storytelling from all over the world, but often has difficult or adult themes, you may want to pick and choose with young listeners.
Short & Curly — Ethics for children, so good, and so many great discussions.
(A bunch of the ABC podcasts are great: https://www.abc.net.au/radio/podcasts/)
Crash Course Kids: grade school science, fun and clear.
It’s OK to be Smart: a range of science topics for many ages. (review first for younger kids!)
Geography Now: does what it says on the tin. (For all ages, so also review first)
Extra Folklore (Extra Credits): retellings of mythological stories from around the world. Will contain challenging themes.
Sesame Street: You know this one, but it’s on YouTube!
PBS Kids: There is a lot here. Too much, but better than not enough. Remember though that even with PBS, this process is never plant them at the browser and forget it!
MC Frontalot: funny hip hop with many science, tech, and cultural themes, and an amazing folklore album called Question Bedtime.
A Capella Science: Parodies of popular music, but with great science involved. Neither your child nor you will get all of it.
(And some of the ASAP science music, also science parodies, listed later.)
Planet Money: great story telling that introduces the audience to principle of economics in the real world.
Stuffed You Missed in History Class: Historical stories, sensitive to younger listeners but some adult themes.
Common Descent: Two pop culture obsessed paleontologists explain Earth history with a lot of movie references and memes. They also explain evolution and natural processes with everything from the Jurassic Park movies to the ancient Greek mythological monsters.
Up First: a brief and simple daily dose of news, good for sparking discussion of current events. And consistently short.
ASAP Science: Great short science videos, wide range of topics.
Crash Course: Crash Course is structured into classes on a wide range of topics, viewable from their main page. Some great ones to start with are World History, Media Literacy, Mythology, Navigating Digital Information, Astronomy, and Computer Science. Crash Course is definitely one of the most vital sources out there and on this page.
Sci Show: from the same people who created Crash Course, Sci Show is science videos. They cover general science and science news, along with separate channels for space and psychology.
PBS Eons: A beautiful paleontology show, not just talking about dinosaurs, but many topics from the history of life on Earth.
Horrible Histories is a very funny vignette show on history, very much in the educational potty humor category, but whatever it takes.
Minute Earth: Scientific explainers, 3–5 minutes long with fun animations.
Overly Sarcastic Productions: Quick, meme-driven summaries of media analysis and history, smart and funny, and well-researched.
Religion for Breakfast: FINALLY there’s some proper religious studies education on the internet.
Engage with theirs, do your homework! Often within a genre of music there are historical context or educational resources that tie back to some of the great music being created.
History of the World in 100 Objects: From the BBC and the British Museum, this is about as good a use of art theft as I’ve ever seen. In 15 minute segments it steps through human history through the lens of 100 items in the British Museum’s collection.
HoPWaG: History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, a fantastic long-running podcast that is what it says it is. Listening along, and discussing how philosophy has developed, will help explain to your teen and possibly yourself why the world is the way it is.
At this age, you can do a lot more planning together. Look through podcasts on topics that can interest you both. My daughter and I both listen to a chemistry podcast, the paleontology podcast full of pop culture references, and the occasional news and history podcast.
PBS Spacetime: Fairly rigorous astrophysics, but written to be able to follow along without the math.
Origin of Everything: Bits of history and culture explained beautifully. Simple, but incredibly engaging and perfect for sparking conversation.
Sexplanations: An exuberant sexologist explains everything, and I do mean everything, in a surprisingly PG and scientific style. Excellent resources, and best of all, you don’t have to watch too much of it together.
Tier Zoo: A zoology channel which uses gaming language and memes to explain animal life. It defies description. It’s fantastic.
3Blue1Brown: A hypnotically beautiful math channel. The math is fairly advanced, but surprisingly easy to follow, because the creator is so remarkably good at explaining and visualizing math concepts.
Minute Physics: generally 3–5 minute videos on topics in, well, physics.
Extra History: Part of the Extra Credits video game channel, their history series are some of the best on YouTube. Evocative and well written animated videos, they are great for both learning history and opening up conversations.
The Brain Scoop: The YouTube channel of Chicago’s Field Museum, it’s a wonderful natural history channel using the museum’s collection.
Vsauce: There are three channels, and they cover a bit of everything, but often conceptual math and physics along with puzzles and pop culture.
There’s always more to find, and ways to both chase and widen children’s interest. Consider how to well-curated YouTube cookie/account. When the computer tries to tell you want you’re interested in, it’s great to be able to discover stuff that you’d never know to look for because you’ve only looked for this kind of high quality material before. That means your trash TV, exercise vids, news, and coasting along a YouTube algorithm needs to happen in another browser from the one you use to educate your child. This is the same with children’s browsing habit: Fortnite videos should be in another browser, not competing with the suggestions that naturally come up with your Crash Course playlist. This isn’t to say that riding along the algorithm is how to educate your child, just that when you’re curating the materials you use, it can suggest useful videos to review later and consider including. But this topic is complicated, and deserves an article of its own. Which is coming soon.
There are so many more great resources and specialist knowledge! Whatever your kid is interested in, there’s something on the net not only about it, but that connects that interest to a wider context.
One last note: Many of these educators and resources are crowd supported, to keep their material free and available to all. If you find them useful, and have the means, please consider supporting your favorites.
Thanks to my Patrons on Patreon who support this work. If you’d like to see more, head over to my Patreon account.