September 20, 2021


Education strikes back

Tips for homeschooling: How to use the alphabet to explore your city

6 min read

The pandemic is a nightmare for everyone, but for working parents, it can feel even more so. Juggling home schooling, screaming kids and endless work Zoom meetings reminds me of a recurring childhood night terror where I was given impossible tasks to complete simultaneously. Defeated, I’d wake up in a sweat screaming. Quarantining with a toddler feels just like that.

Add not being able to travel into the equation, and it feels even worse. My wife and I have flown almost 30 times with our 3-year-old daughter, so traveling was part of our routine (and a privilege). We had to get creative in and around our own city: Washington, D.C.

Inspired by a concept called location-based learning where you use a place to teach a child, I decided to explore our city by focusing on one letter a day and safely visiting a neighborhood starting with the letter. Starting in April, we went from A to Z through D.C., the suburbs and are almost done visiting the area’s off-the-beaten-path spots. Once we’re in the area, I explain its history in a way our daughter understands. Then we look for items starting with the letter.

Rather than being stuck at home, this parenting approach got us safely outside, creatively taught my daughter the alphabet and our city’s history, and gave us a sense of travel. Here’s how we did it and how you can, too.

Adelynn Graff stares at one of the lion statues that are part of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Judiciary Square. (Austin Graff/The Washington Post)

How we structured our day

Thanks to being employed by companies supportive of working parents and living with housemates willing to help, my wife, Theresa, and I are able to structure our day that allows for balancing work and home schooling. Our pandemic schedule goes like this:

  • 6 to 9 a.m. – Austin works while Theresa is with our daughter.
  • 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Austin home-schools/explores with our daughter.
  • 12 to 1 p.m. – Lunch.
  • 1 to 3:30 p.m. – Austin and Theresa work while our daughter naps.
  • 3:30 to 6 p.m. – Our housemate watches our daughter.
  • 6 to 8 p.m. – Family time and dinner.
  • 8 to 9 p.m. – Austin and Theresa work.

How we planned our explorations

The night before our adventures, I research the neighborhood using Wikipedia, Google Maps, blogs and historical societies. Once I understand the neighborhood’s story, I map out our stops adding in a local bakery or coffee shop for a midmorning snack break, a mural for color, and a playground for my daughter. From there, I create custom Google Maps (I do the same while traveling) to ensure we hit every spot under three hours.

The do’s and don’ts

Stay outside and wash your hands

We’re taking safety precautions during the pandemic. We have rules. Wear a mask, keep your distance from others and stay outside. Avoid going inside. After every stop, wash our hands with approved hand sanitizer.

Don’t pack your itinerary

Many of the places I visit are new to me. Wanting to see it all, I’d pack our itinerary. The result was rushing from place to place and an annoyed toddler. Make sure your stops are near each other. If they aren’t, only visit three to four places. A lighter itinerary also leaves room for impromptu stops when you drive by a fun park or local barbecue joint.

Adelynn Graff cools off from the summer heat in a creek that pours into Fletcher’s Cove in Northwest Washington. (Austin Graff/The Washington Post)

It’s okay to start small

Not every parent has the time or means to explore in the way we did but you can start small. Explore streets in your town through the alphabet or even numbers. As we worked our way down the alphabet, a few letters were troublesome for finding a town or neighborhood: X, Y and Z. For those letters, I found streets starting with the letter. We’d wander down the street and explore the surrounding area.

Don’t shy away from the dark side of history

Local history sometimes brought us to mansions on former plantations. Rather than shy away from learning about slavery, I use it as an opportunity to teach my daughter the evils and how it helped create inequitable systems today. This ties history to current events.

What we learned

Cities are full of nature

Staying entirely outside opened our eyes to nature. In the middle of every city and town are biking/running trails, parks, gardens and even nature preserves. Use Google Maps to find green spaces in a city. Usually, parks come with water — a river or creek to wade in (if the season permits). We kept bathing suits and bug spray in the trunk.

Suburbs are gems

Being a proud city kid my entire life, I largely ignored exploring suburbs until the pandemic hit. I was convinced only big cities have places worth visiting. I was very wrong. Just outside of D.C. are suburbs filled with history, culture and good food — places I’d recommend tourists visiting. For example, some of the best Korean food is in Annandale, Va. Maryland is home to the Patuxent Research Refuge spanning nearly 13,000 acres.

A 1992 mural by artist Cheryl Foster along Highway 295 in the River Terrace neighborhood in Northeast. (Austin Graff/The Washington Post)

Travel can be done in your backyard

I grew up abroad and have been to more than 70 countries. My family has a trip booked to Japan in November but it isn’t looking promising. I miss travel. However, I’d miss it more if I didn’t explore my own backyard. Like visiting a different country, I see new streets, people and ways of life every day without journeying far from home.

Our top D.C.-area finds

River Terrace, Northeast Washington

First developed in 1937, River Terrace in Ward 7 of Washington is a cul-de-sac cut off from the city by the Anacostia River, a highway and major street. A third of the neighborhood is a park with a running trail, a playground and fields where you can watch the Metro cross the river. Nearby sewer cover plates are painted with images of local wildlife. Down alleys are hidden murals.

Greenbelt, Md.

Eight miles north of D.C. is a town built as a cooperative. Greenbelt was the first of three New Deal towns created by the federal government in the 1930s. Historic Greenbelt is preserved with an art deco theater and a co-op coffee shop. Along Greenbelt Lake are picnic tables, trails and a playground.

Vienna, Va.

Named a “best place to live” in the country, Vienna’s downtown is filled with top restaurants, murals and a little historical library. Behind the Vienna Shopping Center is a large mural depicting places found along the W&OD Trail. Vienna is also home to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, which consists of 95 acres of gardens and trails, and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, where you can sing onstage to an empty crowd.

Read more:

How my wife and I have traveled with our kid, from 12 weeks old to toddler

How to ditch an itinerary and discover a city

This luxury Disney World resort wants to home-school your kids