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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

How to Set Up Your Kid’s Virtual Work/Play Space

Sure, you’ve been stuck at home and are now feeling Zoom fatigue. Chances are your kid is too. That’s why it’s important for them to carve out a space of their own to connect remotely, for school or just hanging out with friends. After all, if they’re not happy with their immediate surroundings, the video meetups from home will be all the more unsatisfying.

Whether it’s Zoom or another videoconferencing tool, here are some tips to help your kids optimize the experience. Before you get too far into it, be sure to brush up on your Zoom skills so you know what you’re dealing with. (And pay close attention to those privacy settings.) Also, here’s a general guide to child-proofing your devices if you’re going to be loaning them out for second-period math class.

Work Together

Of course, every kid and every household is different. If one arrangement isn’t working, feel free to shake it up. What’s important is taking the time to try different approaches and find what works best for your child.

“In order for your child to access their thinking brain, you’ve got to really calm down their emotional and survival brains,” says Hanna Bogen Novak, the director of speech and language services at The Center for Connection, a therapeutic organization in Pasadena, California. “That means helping them feel regulated in the moment.”

Finding an ideal arrangement should be an activity to tackle together. It’s good, creative bonding time and will help ensure your kid has a space that’s both functional and suits their individual needs. After all, they don't want to grind away in a space that feels like it’s for boring grown-ups, and you probably don’t want your whole living room to be taken over by a sprawling fort built from teetering stacks of furniture.

Get Comfy

The most important aspect of a good work or play space should be comfort—physical and emotional. You want to create an environment where your kid can relax and focus.

“In a perfect world, a child has a designated study space with limited distractions, with all of their tech needs figured out and set up ahead of time,” says Sierra Filucci, the editorial director of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization that recently launched a platform dedicated to helping parents navigate the challenges of distance learning.

That means turn off the TV, give their phone a rest, and even maintain some space between siblings if things tend to get rivalrous. The problem, Filucci notes, is that many families don’t have enough space to set up a dedicated Zoom studio for every child.

“Some of these tips around getting your kids set up for online learning kind of assume that there’s tons of space or maybe there’s not many people in your house,” she says. “But maybe there’s a big extended family, or people are living in a one-bedroom apartment.”

In any case, it helps to consolidate. Filucci advises keeping a box or bin with everything you need to set up a work/play space. That way the gear will be easier to deploy each day than if it’s scattered throughout the house.

If an area needs to be used for kid and household activities, such as the kitchen table, there are ways to carve out a separate space while still keeping it available for other functions. Novak suggests using painter’s tape to mark out a square on the table where your kid has the freedom to place whatever they need to help them feel comfortable and connected. Just having some delineation of boundaries can give them a sense of agency over their surroundings.

Don’t be afraid to go for the nontraditional setup either, even if it’s for school time. Nothing about this global phenomenon is traditional, so there’s no need to re-create a schoolroom setting if that doesn’t work for your child.

“Telling parents that the only way they’re going to be successful is if they put their kid at some Pottery Barn desk is ridiculous,” Novak says. “Because the reality is, if that’s a kid who thrives in a physical space where there’s limited noise and limited visual distraction, then maybe sitting on the floor under the dining room table is a great space. The kid loves it and turns it into a fort, and they’re really successful. Then that actually feels really special and fun.”

Gear Up

If you don’t already have a device with a camera in it, well, you’ll need one. Laptops are the most obvious choice. They tend to be the most versatile and, with keyboards and cameras built in, require fewer accessories. They’re also typically the most expensive option, although it’s possible to find some great cheap(ish) laptops out there.

Mobile gear gets the job done as well. Tablets work great, especially ones designed with kids in mind. A smartphone can work too, even if the screen is too small to do much school work on. It’s a good idea to stabilize your device somehow, so that your kid’s hand doesn’t cramp up and everybody watching doesn’t get motion sickness. You could spend $10 to get an actual phone stand, or you could just prop up the device with books. Heck, slap an adhesive strip on the back of the phone and stick it on the wall. There are no rules in quarantine.

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Stay Connected

The internet can be as wondrous when it works as it is frustrating when it doesn’t. Video calls get finicky even when everything is working well. Add in another streaming sibling and a couple parents shouting into their own Zooms all day and the signal is bound to get unstable. Wired connections tend to be more reliable. If your kid is using a laptop, try plugging in an ethernet cable instead of depending on wifi. If that’s not an option, check out our guide on how to upgrade your home internet.

Light Bright

For better or worse, the whole point of a video chat is that people can see each other. If your kid’s image is dark and blurry, it’s easier to detach and become a wallflower in a sea of faces. Being able to see each other’s bright, well-defined facial expressions can go a long way in making people feel more connected.

Try to keep light sources behind the camera, away from the lens. Avoid putting your kid’s back to a window, unless they’re going for that silhouetted witness-protection-program look. If window or lamp light is still too dim, you can try a dedicated clip-on video light to really glam things up.

Find Your Sound

Unless you want to go mad from the collected shrieks of every other child on the Zoom call, get your kid some headphones. We recommend the $80 Puro Sound BT2200 bluetooth headphones for youngsters. They isolate outside noise and limit the volume to eardrum-safe decibel levels. For cheaper options, check out our guide to the best headphones that won’t eviscerate your wallet.

If the quality of your kid’s audio is really important (say they’re lead soprano in a junior acapella group or something), it might be worth investing in a dedicated microphone or even a gaming headset. Either is bound to be better than your laptop mic.

Frame the Shot

My WIRED colleague Adrienne So has some excellent advice on how to arrange an A+ video call. In general, advise your kid to keep their face somewhere in the middle of the picture. Take time to figure out the right height and placement for both the device and the child. They should sit or stand eye level with the camera, otherwise everyone else on the call will be staring at your kids’s scalp or straight up their nose.

Also consider what else is the frame. By now, you’ve probably seen the embarrassing videos of people who didn’t realize how much background their camera was showing. For better or worse, a video call invites other people into your space.

“Something to think about as a parent when you’re setting your kid up for video chats is, what is revealed by the camera?” Filucci says. “That could be everything from insight into your socioeconomic status, or details about your kid’s bedroom that may feel super personal. Video chats can be screenshotted, they can be recorded. Think about it as your personal space—how much of that information do you want to be potentially public or shared?”

Watch Your Backdrop

Luckily, there are a number of ways to block out the surroundings and keep the focus on the call. For a quick and easy backdrop, Novak suggests setting up a tri-fold display board, like the kind kids might use to present a science fair project.

Virtual backgrounds are another useful and fun Zoom feature. For a virtual background to work well, it’s best to have a solid slab of single color behind the kid. A white wall works great for this. Then, just search through thousands of royalty-free images on sites like Pixabay or Wikimedia Commons and download to your heart’s content. Pre-load the images into Zoom and your kid will have a nice variety of beautiful vistas and/or psychedelic dreamscapes to choose from. It’s worth noting that these images might not work in every setting—they could prove distracting to other students in a virtual classroom, for instance. Maybe have a few unobtrusive background images at the ready, just in case.

To make a virtual background look really good, try using a green screen. The obnoxious color is so dissimilar to human skin tones that it makes it easy to separate the edges of a person from the backdrop. Drop a virtual landscape behind your kid and they’ll fit right in.

You could buy a dedicated screen or some legit chroma key paint if you also plan to shoot a Marvel movie at some point. Or, for the cheap and DIY way, get some foamcore, paint it bright green, and prop it up in the background. (You can also just get one pre-made.)

To enable greenscreen mode, go into Zoom’s preferences, then go to Virtual Background and check the box that says “I have a green screen.” Also, try to keep things evenly lit. If shadows hit the backdrop, it can change the hue of green and make it harder for the computer to tell what’s your kid and what’s not.

Have Fun

Once your kid gets into a good Zoom routine, then the fun begins. They can sync up with their friends to have a remote watch party or play board games over video. There’s also a crazy amount of streaming kids’ content that they can watch from the comfort of their Zoom zone. And when the family is ready to log off the Matrix for some play activities in the real world, try ones that won’t make a mess of everything.

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