However your children began school this year, you’ve been doing all you can to help them participate and stay engaged with their learning. These times aren’t easy for anyone, and children have been impacted by the separation from their teachers and friends, their only window to the classroom a screen.
Fortunately, L.A. is filled with ways to enrich your child’s school experience. There are Los Angeles enrichment programs that bring in the fun and dial down the stress, help them learn skills for the classroom and the virtual world, help them stretch their voices and their creativity, and even get them comfortable on camera. There are even a couple of carefully curated in-person options for kids to play and create together.
Ready to play
Ready to play with your kids? Check out the music and movement program for ages 6 months through preschool from PLAY, where parents have always gotten into the act. The program is now available on Zoom, with themed classes in September, followed by a fall session beginning in October. “We figured out all the little tweaks you need to know to get music playing and singing happening on Zoom,” says co-founder and owner Anne Kelly-Saxenmeyer. “We see wonderful parent participation as we do when we’re in person. It’s a tough time, and it has kept us going to see parents making this experience for their kids every day.”
Materials such as recorded classes, downloadable tracks and sheet music and lyrics are available digitally, and Kelly-Saxenmeyer says she recently offered the program’s first multi-project messy mixed-media art kit for pickup for ages 3-6, and hopes to offer more kits soon. Play instructors are getting into the spirit with playful use of the screen and fun props such as bubbles, food and pets. “All of these things are joyful, and they’re stress relievers not only for the kids but for the parents,” Kelly-Saxenmeyer says. “We’re very happy to have this way to keep families singing together, and to stay connected.”
Om at home
Speaking of stress relief, everyone from babies to teens can learn to be mini yogis in person or online with classes from Zooga Yoga. The studios are offering in-person outdoor classes (socially distanced, with masks) at the park across the street from its Culver City headquarters and in West Hollywood, plus live and recorded classes on Facebook and Zoom. For families forming learning pods, Zooga is now offering Zoopods. “We will provide physical fitness, and edutainment – dance yoga or music,” says founder Antonia King.
However you connect, Zooga provides tools to help kids through this time. “All of these elements and tools that we give these kiddos are even more important now,” King says. “The stimulation from being in front of a screen all day, listening to a teacher talk, not having the one-on-one interaction is real tough on kids. We’re asking them to move their bodies and visualize and breathe. We’re getting them up and moving.”
For little ones with shorter attention spans, King says Zooga music is the ticket. “Our teachers have shakers and guitars, instruments and puppets,” she says. Families can even order Zooga mats and accessories to bring the studio atmosphere home. When parents need a break, Zooga offers their Care Club babysitting service, where trained Zooga staffers bring child care with extras. “They’re trained in yoga,” says King. “They bring arts and crafts to the kid’s house and, as a bonus, help kids with homework.”
To build social skills while socially distanced, consider classes from Imagine Etiquette. Once offered through schools, this social-emotional learning program is now offered as after-school enrichment for students in kindergarten through high school. The program covers social graces, character building and self-esteem, peer pressure and bullying, social media etiquette and internet safety and life skills such as finances, time management and meal prep. “We’re also going to talk to our kids about their emotional health during this pandemic,” says founder Bernadette Fernandez. “We still have a lot of peer pressure online. Kids bully through their social media apps.”
The classes are designed for engagement and interaction and will also cover Zoom etiquette. Fernandez is also working on options for families in learning pods. To help with all sides of the distance-learning equation, Fernandez even offers an internet safety course for parents, based on what she learned from her students. “My kids at school taught me everything I needed to know about social media,” she says. “As our kids are on their digital devices now way more than ever, parents need to know what they’re doing and who they are connecting with.”
Way off Broadway
Some virtual programs are new to the scene. Broadway from Home, for instance, opened this year and is now giving kids all over the world the chance to learn acting and singing from Broadway performers and teachers. “We went from just doing one-day classes to live performance musicals, longer multi-week programs and summer camps,” says founder Harley Harrison Yanoff. “The demand has been so great that we’ve moved into a full-time model and now have multiple workshops going on five days a week.”
Sessions include theater games, Q&As with Broadway actors and the chance to learn and perform material from popular Broadway shows. “The interaction the kids have with each other and instructors is amazing,” says Yanoff. “Everyone gets a very intimate experience with us since we hire a lot of coaches and keep our ratios of participants to educators low.” Along with performance techniques, students build self-esteem, public-speaking and team-building skills. And it’s one more way to form connections during this time of isolation. “This is an amazing way for kids to stay connected and make new friends from across the world,” Yanoff says. “It’s been a saving grace for a lot of families during these uncertain times and really provides an outlet for not only creativity, but also socialization.”
A cast of teens
The Groundlings Theatre & School offers another way for kids to “trod the boards” from their keyboards. The L.A.-based program will offer online classes for ages 11-18 on weekends all through the fall and winter. “Our teen classes are designed to keep students on their feet and engaged, working with other students and the teacher on fun improv games and scene work,” says Associate Education Director Jon Hampton. “It’s not a class you take sitting at the table.”
Like other theater classes – especially improv – Groundlings classes offer a chance to build creativity and connections. “Improv is all about learning to be in the moment and awaken your creativity,” Hampton says. “You can’t make a plan in improv, so you have to learn to trust yourself and to listen to what’s going on around you. That’s a skill that translates into any creative pursuit and informs how we interact with other people. Our classes offer students a rare opportunity to connect with other kids their age, plus a chance to learn how to connect.”
From stage to screen
Another improv option for kids and teens (ages 5-16) is Studio LOL. Co-founder Katy Chase says the shift from on-stage to on-camera was a fit for the program – and for the times. “We realized that all of our teachers are professional actors who work on camera for a living, so it was a really natural transition,” she says. Also, cooped-up kids were pestering their parents to let them go live on Instagram or start their own YouTube channels. “They wanted to be seen and heard,” says Chase. Improv games such as “Hey, Guys,” where kids start with that line and then improvise a video for a funny YouTube channel, are a recent update.
But the program isn’t just for kids who want an audience. “Some kids just feel so apprehensive about the camera in their face,” Chase says. “They don’t want to get on and learn at all because it’s very uncomfortable and awkward. We’re playing games that are naturally fun, naturally encouraging, just to help them sit there in front of the camera and talk into it. We’ve gotten feedback that it’s helping with their other Zooms and it’s even opening some kids up to it.” Because improv, Chase says, builds grit. “We know how to be uncomfortable. Our class is about stretching kids into just as much discomfort as we can while masking it with a silly theme. They’re constantly getting that message: I can do tough stuff.”
Back in the game
Getting kids outdoors and playing again is the name of the game at TGA Premier Sports in Long Beach and Orange County, which is offering in-person golf and tennis instruction for preschoolers through age 13 at a variety of locations. The program is partnering with recreation centers, city parks and with Bixby Village Golf Course in Long Beach for locations to offer golf programming. “Kids can get engaged and learn even if it’s their first time playing golf and touching a golf club,” says Kevin Oliver, owner and chapter director of Greater Long Beach. “We even have one-on-one lessons and clinics where good players who’ve been playing for a long time can hone their skills and maybe even make their high school golf team.”
Students wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible and coaches wear them at all times. Equipment is disinfected before and after each use, and there are handwashing stations on the course. Kids are kept in small groups with households together, and 100% of the program takes place outdoors. Families have driven from as far away as Pasadena and south Orange County for the chance to get their kids outside and interacting with other kids their age. “The benefit to kids is really the social and emotional side of the sport,” Oliver says. “It’s a social game where you can play with a small group of people, three or four others, and you can play for your entire life.”
A tennis program is in the works thanks to community partners such as churches, which are offering the use of empty parking lots.
Write through it
Kids and teens looking for a creative outlet, guidance on college essays or the chance to build language skills will find help in Writopia Lab. The nonprofit runs creative writing workshops for ages 6-18, with all classes online during the pandemic. Workshops are led by published authors and produced playwrights. Students can try their hand at fiction, poetry, graphic novels and screenwriting, in addition to polishing college essays while building connections and confidence. “They’re learning how to listen to each other’s work, to read their work and to give each other feedback, but it’s constructive and positive,” says Los Angeles Regional Manager Kimberly Waid. “And this is great for confidence across the board.”
Young writers are also honing their craft. “In these workshops, we use writing prompts that are generative,” Waid says. “They help the writers come up with ideas and they teach them craft lessons about literary devices, characterization, optical and sensory details.” These skills also translate to more academic writing. “Parents sometimes are surprised when I say that creative writing can be super fun and as helpful as essay writing, because you’re using critical thinking skills, you’re having to overcome arguments,” says Waid, adding that regular writing practice also teaches grammar, vocabulary and sentence variation and complexity. “All of these skills come through meeting regularly to work on their writing.”
The workshops also help kids write their way through these difficult times. “We’ve seen a lot of writing about COVID, processing how it feels to be estranged from your friends,” Waid says. “Writing is a great way for these kids to come together and find they are feeling similar emotions and they have similar struggles and empathy for one another.”
Courage through coding
You wouldn’t think a shift to virtual classes would be much of a challenge for a coding school, but Nicole Chang, co-owner of The Coder School Pasadena franchise, says that’s not the case. The program’s selling point is that it turns coding – which could be isolating and solitary – into a very in-person, interactive thing. A franchise-wide effort went into creating that same in-person vibe in The Coder School’s virtual programs.
To build connections, groups are capped at four to six, and coaches tailor lessons to kids’ areas of interest. “We ask for people to write about their child beforehand to us, and we ask the coaches to learn about the kids,” Chang says. They also try to match students according to age and skill level. To keep coders engaged, they do appreciation exercises and “oxygen drills” (small exercises that prime the brain for learning and get kids out of their chairs).
The coding itself teaches four overarching lessons: goal setting, critical thinking, creativity and courage. “These are skills that can transfer to life,” says Chang. “With coding, they very clearly see that they can have this great vision, try to put it in code and it doesn’t always work the first time around. We teach them the courage to take their vision and keep trying.”
Art is the cause
If you want your kids to learn to see the silver lining, hook them up with a rebel – Art Rebel. This Sherman Oaks-based creative space is dedicated to helping people of all ages reconnect with their creative selves. Founder Ponti Lambros says the goal for fall is to provide in-person programming, but virtual options will be available if needed. The studio will offer Homeschool Rebel, homeschool art classes, at noon on weekdays. There will also be a new class called Creative Art Gym, with a series of creative exercises to promote positivity and stimulate right- and left-brain functions. “It’s a creative workout that all ages and skill levels can participate in,” says Lambros. “In a 60-minute class, there might be six different creative stations, just like a gym, where students might paint, draw, use clay, doodle, build, weave and more.” The plan is to make this available in person from 3-6 p.m. weekdays, but Lambros says the activities will be virtual if necessary.
Families also have the option to rent out the studio by the hour for private artmaking, and Art Rebel art kits – including video with step-by-step instructions – are available for families to pick up and enjoy at home. Art Rebel also plans to expand its mobile service, offering more classes on-site at people’s homes. However they access it, Lambros wants everyone to harness the power of art. “Art is a healing tool and now more than ever, families must realize the importance of putting aside time each day for creative development to occur,” he says. “This is a moment in history where everyone should reimagine, reconnect and rediscover their creative self. We have all suffered but must start to begin to heal, and art and creativity is a portal for positive change.”
At the root of creativity
When Rachel Villanueva thinks of healing art, she’s thinking of clay. Villanueva is manager of Bitter Root Pottery, which currently has locations open in Beverly Grove and West Hollywood. “Clay has so many great benefits,” she says, “especially at a time like this, where mental health is such a struggle for so many people.” Villanueva points out that many progressive therapists use clay, and that kids who aren’t returning to the classroom this fall and are separated from their friends can tap into its grounding effect.
“They can work with clay and they can feel excited and creative, and parents can feel that their kids are doing something artistic and fun and productive with their time,” she says. “It’s so important.”
The studios are operating at half capacity and capping classes at eight students to facilitate social distancing. Face coverings are required for all, and tools are set out before class and sanitized after class by the instructors.
They have ongoing classes, called open wheel classes, on weekdays. Reservations for these must be made in advance in order to ensure proper social distancing, and to give instructors the chance to sanitize and set out the tools beforehand. Bitter Root also plans to offer kids’ camps this fall for groups of eight to 10 students. Learning pods can book their own private group classes in the studio, or book an in-home visit from a Bitter Root instructor as part of the studio’s mobile clay program. In-home classes focuse on hand-bluilding projects, and don’t require the use of a pottery wheel.
Lots of parents have craft materials at home for their kids, but there’s something special about kids crafting together. “Being able to sign on to a lesson with other kids, oftentimes their friends, and make the same project and compare the things that they’re doing differently or show off what they’ve done, is such a self-esteem booster for kids,” says Victoria Steger, studio director at Makers Mess in downtown L.A. “And it’s such a great way of discovering their own sense of self. What makes my project different from your project, even though we’re approaching it with the same materials, and we have the same instruction?”
Over the summer, the studio launched a virtual summer camp via Zoom that will continue into fall. Families can stop by the studio for curbside pickup of supplies for two crafts per day, Mon.-Thurs., with different themes each week. These will include museum masterpieces, California dreaming and around the world. “We’re trying to incorporate crafts and themes that lean toward educational discussion,” Steger says.
A priority is fostering a feeling of connection to their instructors and to each other. “Kids, especially the ages that we’re working with, between 5 and 12, they miss each other so much right now,” Steger says. “So providing a space where every day they can see their friends and they can feel a sense of normalcy has been really important. And we just can’t overstate the value of working with your hands in terms of hand-eye coordination, in terms of developing critical-thinking skills, but also in terms of fostering a sense of self, sense of creativity, a sense of confidence in engaging with the world.”
Help your kids engage with the world beyond the classroom – virtual or not – by exploring some of these great options.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.