This New Virtual World….
What Does It Mean for the Youngest Learner?
By Holly Harris
As Early Childhood Educators, we have spent our entire careers honing our skills to teach young children in person. We have learned how to guide a child with a simple look, a question, or a touch of a hand. And poof! Almost overnight our field has been turned upside down. We have been asked to help families to guide children’s learning at home, often whilst the adult is working full time. Creating a packet/unit or how to of materials that includes read-alouds with follow up questions, tips and instructions for outside games and walks, and science and art activities assist families in learning at home.
Teachers have tried virtual versions of class-wide morning group times on Zoom, Google Meet or other social platforms. Small-groups and the age of the children, as well as parent facilitation may help in the success of these sessions. Young children have a hard time sustaining attention and focus for any length of time. This is a difficult and confusing time for them. It is generally well known that learning on a screen is not desired. The American Academy of Pediatrics has specific guidelines on the use of a screen for young children, limiting the time and quantity of the screen. During these unusual times, it is important to use the resources that are available to stay within the guidelines and provide high quality experiences.
Minimizing screen time has always been a concern for preschool children. The new virtual world seems in direct contrast to this. But the language is clear. Preschool children should limit screen time. Primary learning activities should be done through play-based activities. Teachers should guide families in creating experiences that are child led. Virtual meetings should be short, no longer than a typical group time. One idea is making one of these group sessions a family session. Make it something that would be fun for the family to do together, like a sing-a-long or game time.
Ways to Make Your Curriculum Rich Outside of Screen Time
- Hold a morning meeting/group time. Use meet ups as a time to introduce and excite children on a new provocation. Spark children’s curiosity toward a new way of thinking about the topic or focus. Try and create a routine for this time; this session should mirror what happens in the in-person classroom as much as possible.
- Do not expect all families to participate in screen time. Not all families want more screen time for their children. Some will do all the activities that you send along and will send videos and pictures to you of these activities. Parents have many personal feelings around screen time, as well as complicated schedules to try and balance each member of the family’s individual group schedule. For some families, they will want the support, without the virtual component. Others want and need the virtual component and will do fewer of the activities sent in the packets. Allow families to come as they are. Participate in ways that help them to be successful in the program. How is the program helpful and supportive for the family and the child? Shifting your thinking when teaching will help. This takes the pressure off. It is not about attendance and checkmarks. It is about community.
- Provide meaningful experiences that can be done outside of the screen time. Provide families follow up questions and activities to help opportunities for digging deeper. Make sure that these experiences are activities that your families can easily do while social distancing. To better plan units that families can do, ask them to send pictures of various spaces or items, like the child’s room, toybox, bookshelf, the pantry, spice cabinet or outside space. This will help you have an idea of activities that might be possible and also which ones you need to provide possible suggestions for individual adaptation.
- Child led learning creates opportunities that are child led. Remember that most families are multitasking at a heightened level. They are balancing multiple children, with multiple programs. Caregivers are trying to help older children complete their school work; all while trying to maintain their own professional job, and hold down a home life routine. Create activities that the children can do on their own with a bit of set up by the teacher. Provocations can be created from the photos and videos that the families are sharing. What new interests are the children curious about? What new skills are they working on? What new things are they noticing in the world? Allowing the child to take the lead, using their own environments, toys and surroundings makes this easier. Ask families to submit photos, videos, and stories of their children at play. Look for trends during this play for documentation. Share these documentations during the small groups for children and other families to see. Children love to see and hear not only themselves but also their friends in their home environments. Hint: families will get“better” at knowing what to send, much like you did when you were first learning how to document.
- Family partnerships are at the center of all of this. This is an excellent time to foster these relationships or create new stronger connections with the families that are in the program. Respect is critical on both sides. Families are under stress from all sides. As more communities are talking of reopening, there is even more pressure on families. Do they have a job to return to? Who will care for their children if and when they return? Will they and their loved ones be safe from public health concerns as our communities reopen? Many of your families will come out of this time mentally exhausted, financially stressed, and emotionally depleted. Compassion and empathy are critical when we engage with families. Strive to help!
- Relationship building is at the core of Early Childhood Education. As a profession, we are concerned about children missing the relationships, friends and interactions established in the classroom. These relationships foster growth opportunities and learning. This desire to create relationships should be our guiding light. How can we create connections when planning a virtual meet up? Does putting everyone on mute help to facilitate this? Relationships extend to the families in our care. How are we deepening the relationships with the families? How are we helping them to teach their children? Working with parents has always been key to high quality instruction. Think about how to partner with families. What are their needs? How can you help them? What can you provide to alleviate their stress? Look to the philosophy of your program to guide your interactions in this arena.
- Music is magic. Singing and dancing has always been magical for children. Participating in song and dance is a release of endorphins to the brain, which alleviates stress. Singing and dancing is easy for children to do, especially in the virtual world. They can get up and move. Try a follow the leader activity. Singing and dancing has always engaged children who are easily distractible in person, and they do the same when on a virtual platform.
- Leverage tech-savvy team members and learn new skills. Even at schools that are traditionally low-tech, there are staff members and families that are particularly savvy in technology. You can even take this as an opportunity to learn a new skill around social media and e-learning technology yourself! Teachers everywhere are learning how to create Bitmoji’s classrooms and animations to help excite and engage their children.
- Be kind and gracious. Measure success in smiles and participation. Try and get used to seeing yourself on the screen.
Early Childhood classrooms may be empty for now, but young children are learning, growing, and developing all over this country. Teachers and families have partnered together to come up with various virtual learning communities. Learning continues, just in different spaces. Only time will tell if these spaces and programs will continue fully or partially.
Early Childhood Specialist