An account of Roam Research use cases for kids and the accompanying guide for parents
“What are you doing?”
If you’re like me, a parent who’s not used to silence in the house, and you find yourself having a conversation with your partner in the living room, uninterrupted and with no kid in sight, you will probably yell this across the room, to take the pulse of your brood.
Are they building a fort that spans two rooms and filling it with stuff that will take days to find its way back? Are they playing video-games way too much? Are they trying to melt an eraser in the microwave? Did they figure out (again) a way to stay on TikTok for more than their one-hour time limit? Are they even in the house?
is an answer I started to hear lately from my kids (a 14 yo girl, a 12 yo girl, and a 9 yo boy) and it makes me smile and go on with my adult conversation in the living room.
Because it could mean many things – all of them good.
The kids could be journaling their day, writing notes on our morning homeschooling session, keeping track of their assignments for online school, doing said assignments, dreaming about their future, dictating a literal dream from the previous night, watching a tutorial video on 2x speed to take down only the relevant minutes, being in a school Zoom meeting and compiling questions or answers, reading a book/textbook and setting up a kanban to memorize key concepts, writing “créations” (a term they use in their arts school for the story line of a sketch, clip, or show), jotting down a word or a phrase they heard in a movie and they would want to use, making a plan for a YouTube video, learning CSS, venting out anxiety and failure or chronicling gratitude and wins, writing down a recipe or a joke, and so on…
Kids take naturally to Roam Research – no explicit onboarding is needed. The above use cases came about spontaneously and give me great hope for a future where children could build databases like this, and we could take them seriously.
I summarize below a few of the use cases, and how my kids use Roam Research.
In-lecture notes (in-person or online)
Taking lecture notes is the most obvious use that school-aged kids have for Roam Research as a note-taking tool in typical classroom scenarios involving lectures of different types (formal, semi-formal, discussion, seminar, etc.).
Roam is very amenable to a flow-based notetaking (see e.g. Learn More, Study Less – Flow-Based Notetaking).
Instead of writing detailed notes of everything that’s spoken to be studied/learned later, one immerses oneself fully in the lecture or discussion, only writing what pops up, and making on-the-spot connections using page or block references.
In addition to linking, my oldest daughter, who’s been using this method for her on-line lectures during quarantine, also has a set of tags that she started using consistently, such as [[Definitions]] or [[Dates]]. Here’s a snapshot of her notes on a Zoom meeting discussion.
In turn, for our homeschooling sessions, which were more problem-solving and discussion-based, the girls used paper notebooks for their autonomous problem-solving.
However, since a lot got written on the blackboard, they later transferred some of the new information from successive pictures of the blackboard to their Roam databases (and I sometimes assisted with notations and definitions).
To then get the most out of her notes, she spends about 30 minutes (one pomodoro) to go over them right after, or at least on the day she took them, to create a [[Cues]] block with questions for the major concepts to memorize from the lecture.
The blocks created can then be put in a Kanban for spaced repetition. At this point, she can also refer to the recording of the lecture, if she’s made one (although we find that she rarely needs or has time to).
The next obvious use for learning is taking notes on readings: books, articles, PowerPoint slides.
This is an amazing opportunity for kids to get value out of their readings early in their education. I know anecdotally, but there is also some research evidence, that highlighting text as a learning technique is very inefficient.
Instead, kids should learn to only write their own reaction to, reformulation of, or interpretation of a piece of text. It’s not only a way for them to internalize the read material, but, for our family, it turned out to be one of the major ways to do school deliberately.
When they take notes on assigned readings, by creating their very own interpretations, questions, or reactions to them, some materials simply won’t be recorded in any way because they prompt no interest in the kids. And that’s fine, because they’ll do less of the busywork, and more of the intentional kind. Quotes do get collected (we use the Roam+ extension for online materials) but these are almost always accompanied by their own reflections on the text.
I found also that when my kids read fiction for pleasure, they almost never take notes. One exception is a page one of my daughters created called [[juicy sentences]], inspired by her reading of Margaret Atwood. I stole this idea from her, as I, too, think that a good turn of phrase or a striking metaphor are some of life’s greatest pleasures.
Finally, there’s a type of reading material that’s worth going into more detail: one that you want to memorize in full. This could be a biology book chapter, for example, as was the case when my daughter developed an interest in the parts of the brain at one point, after reading Oliver Sacks’s clinical stories of brain damaged patients.
In this case, the purpose of the notes was not interpreting the reading as much as it was breaking it down, in bullet form, which could then be fitted into a schedule for repetition in order to memorize it. But this could also be done for other subjects, such as analytical philosophy, where one could schematize the entire argument in bullets or diagram form. I would argue, in fact, that this is one of the best ways to learn and enjoy philosophy. One can even develop a lifelong passion for poetry from bullet form.
Kids can use Roam Research to write about their day. One of my daughters gets pretty detailed about all the little mundane happenings of her day, pretty much in order. She does it at night usually, and it seems to help her relax by putting ruminating thoughts down in her database. It’s an intimate form of writing not only because she lets go of anxious thoughts but also because she jots down the best moments of the day – a form of gratitude journaling (though I avoided calling it that deliberately), sometimes with pictures (her writing is a mix of English, French, and Romanian).
The same daughter also does on-the-spot journaling sometimes throughout the day, and usually that’s linked to a stronger emotion, positive or negative: sometimes to remember a joke her brother came up with, other times to deal with a stressful event. She actually devised a more structured way for herself to deal with intense negative feelings, and it seems to work wonderfully.
It may be one of the best uses of block references I’ve ever seen! I had encouraged her to write as a way to deal with anxiety, but she’s taken it to a new level with Roam: recently she came up with a text expansion snippet that pops up her favorite poem/prayer to soothe her instantly when she’s angry or upset.
Roam Research is also the tool of choice for journaling literal dreams: my son sometimes likes to put his in right after he wakes up, so that he doesn’t forget the really cool ones.
Planning and dreaming
Another use of Roam for my kids is keeping track of their tasks. It can be schoolwork or household chores, but also components of longer-term goals, especially for my oldest daughter.
During quarantine, this was the main use of the software for my youngest boy to keep track of online school. His teacher emailed or posted work and assignments, and he collected all of them each day in his database as TODOs, with tags for each subject and due dates using the Date picker. Sometimes this was done with the help of his sisters, whom I delegated to be responsible for his schoolwork.
Our approach for online school during quarantine was pretty laid back – as in, we didn’t submit all the homework, respect all the deadlines, or attend all the online meetings. But Roam Research helped make these choices deliberate and thus removed the stress of looming deadlines.
The kids did this by writing down everything that came their way via notifications, school apps, email, websites, but then choosing which ones they wanted to do and marking those they didn’t with some tag, e.g., #notdoingit or #wontgo. Also, if they did some work in one topic, but ran late on the deadline, they could easily search for it if a teacher required it. All this was done in the Daily Notes.
My older daughters also did longer-term planning, e.g., a page for [[flexibility goals]] (they’re circus artists and they would use this page when designing their daily workouts), or ideas for their YouTube channel.
A category of planning I find particularly delightful belongs more to dreaming, and dreaming big it usually is. My oldest added a voice recording of a vision of herself in the future, with very concrete details. When Roam launched the 5-year Believer plan, my middle one came up with the idea of making a prediction for where they will all be in 5 years. They thought it would be fun for everyone who signed up to come up with a prediction like that in their newly created databases. (I also had everyone write in my database what they think they’ll end up doing as a profession when older.)
Creative writing in Roam is usually prompted by school. In my daughters’ arts school, a lot of emphasis is placed on “création”, a term they employ for the story built into their circus performances in either short sketches or full shows.
When they have to write stories, summaries, or other assignments for their language classes (French or English), these also go into their Roam. But creative writing also bleeds from their journaling. My oldest daughter used to write on her phone while commuting to school: little stories that became fiction, featuring characters she’d seen on the bus or metro.
Collecting videos, recipes, phrases, photos and words
Finally Roam Research acts as a catch-all for things they want to collect. It used to be drawings from daycare, little wood sticks from hiking or scribbled words on post-its.
But now it’s also YouTube Lego tutorials they embed in their database and watch sped up to only note down the relevant minutes; baking recipes with their own improvements added as extra bullets; phrases from movies that they want to use when the context comes up; or new words they find fascinating. They let go of keepsakes more easily too, if they can add them as pictures to their databases.
The role of parents
How can you introduce, help, or otherwise encourage your kids to use Roam Research? My stance was pretty much non-interventionist, just by virtue of how we do parenting. Yet also, because of our ways of interacting with them, they will hear about everything that goes on in our day. So they heard me nerding about this new note-taking app, which turned out to be more a thinking tool for work, parenting, care-taking, even entertainment.
But I did have a few tricks up my sleeve, which I discovered, along the way, to work pretty well.
Introduce them to your database first
Have them hang with you while writing about something they may find enticing: like writing a joke you heard from them or planning your summer road trip. But also give them some real estate in your database: for example, I had them write little messages or questions for me, and add tags or references, as they see fit.
Start a writing habit as soon as they create their databases
Association of the desired action with something pleasant or exciting works extremely well as a habit-forming technique.
Don’t do it as a bribe, do it as a vibe.
Doing something new or challenging in a good atmosphere simply works as a powerful habit formation technique.
I use it often in my parenting: whether it be doing chores, enjoying certain foods, or now getting them in the habit of writing. For example, they always like crawling into my bed and call it mama’s cloud. I let them do it for an hour every night, after they’ve finished doing their evening routine and we lightly journal about our day, free write, or get TODO tasks out of our head, for a more serene evening.
Do not intervene (too much): let them just adapt it to their own personalities
Let them, for a good while, just play with the app. To begin with, they only need to know about the Daily Note as the central hub of their writing for the day. Then show them how page referencing, tagging and setting up TODOs work. Roam is beautifully amenable to wandering (roaming!), which kids seem to thrive doing, and you will soon see that it will shape-shift to match their personalities.
For instance, my oldest daughter would never write consistently (even for school). She had all these interests and not enough focused attention to get organized about writing, although she would write on her hand, scribble on the kitchen table, or draw on post-its. Also, she used to miss deadlines regularly.
For a while, she got into bullet journaling, but she would be mostly interested in decorating and drawing in her journals and would abandon a few just to change aesthetic. With Roam Research, it’s the longest she’s been consistent with a writing tool, I think, because it embodies, in a software, the nature of short focused scribbling while wandering somewhat distractedly.
On the other hand, her younger sister is very analytical and organized in her thinking. She used to use Evernote, Google Calendar, Word, and Excel to note-take and plan work, but then found Roam Research had the capability of doing it all in one place: writing essays for school, keeping screenshots, journaling, keeping track of money, etc.
Her database is much more organized, and she journals and plans with a lot of chronological detail almost daily. (As I showed above, she has also found ways to use it creatively for dealing with being upset or overwhelmed.)
Finally, my boy used it extensively to organize his school work during quarantine but is less inclined to write freely in it as habit. He only drops a joke, a little story, or a taxonomy of emojis once in a while. And that’s fine. For the little ones, typing in their stories or ideas seems to help with removing a bottleneck. For example, my boy loved how in the beginning I typed his dreams when he would wake and then he had a lot of fun later reading them. In the meantime, he figured out how to add them himself to the database as recordings.
Show them some magic and they will take it to the next level
I don’t get into Zettlekasten or goal setting or productivity management with my kids. But I’ll show them the magic that I know kids will get excited about.
When I found out about the Themes roamcultists were designing for themselves, I just told my oldest daughter about them. She learned how to do it before I did with the Stylus extension CSS overwriting (even before it got easier via a roam/css page in the database).
One I was surprised by was the use of LaTeX to write mathematical formulas, which I was really excited about because I could use it to do my lesson planning in Roam. But I didn’t expect my kids to be into the aesthetics of text.
I was going to give them a lecture on LaTeX, but they started using it with no lesson from me, instead resorting to Google search images.
Now I sometimes find them scrolling my Twitter feed for #roamcult tips and hacks, which is certainly not the use I expected to get out of my Twitter account.
Help them deal with FOMO, so that they don’t abandon their writing habit
One area where I found it really helps to intervene, as a parent, is when kids tend to abandon a habit because they didn’t keep it as consistently as they had set off to in the beginning. That’s particularly true for older kids, teenagers or college students, and especially for a type of kid who is particularly conscientious and who beats themselves up for not keeping up (and school often reinforces this guilt cycle, rather than breaking it).
That was not the case for my little boy who has altogether stopped writing since the beginning of summer, and started dividing his time between biking outside, training, playing Minecraft, and going down all kinds of rabbit-holes on YouTube.
My oldest is inclined to abandon writing every now and then, but with a little push she will find great pleasure and satisfaction in going back to writing.
My middle daughter, on the other hand, pushes herself too much and would start to feel like she’s missing out when she didn’t journal or write every day. I always thought that there’s no better person than you, the parent, to lovingly diffuse this fear of missing out because it’s quite likely that either you or your partner know how painful it must feel, as you’ve been there too.
Tell them that missing days, even weeks, of writing in their database is fine. If she already enjoys resurfacing her thoughts she had just before the start of quarantine (e.g., how she wished for schools to close “at least for a week”), remind her how cool it is to have even one good little memory or an insightful thought from March 2020.
Encourage them earnestly
This approach is more general, and is one of my first principles in parenting, but also in teaching.
It never ceases to amaze me how simply paying attention to young people allows you to give them that boost in confidence which is ever so hard for kids to both spark and maintain lit.
I started out wanting to set up my kids with a system for taking notes. I stayed in their corner and now they’re making tutorials for their friends on how to use the software and, in the process, they got better than me at video editing, learned how to style pages with CSS and got into coding, took down one notch my infatuation with LaTeX, and learnt to journal with gratitude and honesty.
Looking to the future
Looking to the future, we want to improve on writing notes together using Roam Research. We don’t yet have a common working space, but have started by giving each other editing permissions to our private databases (my kids, in fact, contributed to this very article while I was writing it in my Roam database). The feature is still experimental, but we found it to work seamlessly when we write notes together, especially when I homeschool.
Like with everything Roam, however, the most fun uses are those that emerge spontaneously: last night I asked my girls to each write a couple of sentences in my database, but the real-time updating transformed my database into a chat window. This morning, to my amusement, I found their chat in bullet form linked in my Daily Note (they had referenced for me to find it today).
We’re also looking to develop a system for taking notes for when the kids go back to school in September – it will probably be iterated a few times before we settle on a workflow, but Roam is our playground and we’re looking forward to playing some more.