Welcoming music. A warm hello for every child. Circle time, where kids learn to share information about themselves. A fun game — think “thumbs up or thumbs down if you would like to visit space.” A book, read by the teacher. A song. A movement activity, like dancing. Then, to refocus — deep breaths and yoga.
It’s all part of a typical kindergarten day. But this year, for many children in Massachusetts, it will take place remotely. There will be no tearful goodbyes in the schoolyard. No small feet will trot tentatively down the hallway before crossing into the room that becomes a year-long sanctuary. Classic first-day-of-school excitement, heightened by a prick or two of anxiety, will be hard to duplicate at home with a Chromebook.
For a moment, forget the partisan politics of COVID-19, the bitter arguments over classroom safety, and the inconvenience that shuttered schools represent to working parents. Here’s the real question: Does remote learning really work for 5- and 6-year-olds?
Over the past six months, work-at-home adults learned the challenges of Zoom. At some point, the mind wanders and the body aches for freedom. Can fidgety kindergarten kids thrive in such a learning environment?
Theoretically, yes. “Children are absolutely capable of learning through whatever modality is presented to them,” said Lisa B. Fiore, a professor and chair of the education division at Lesley University. “In terms of learning, how the brain works, there have been studies that show infants who are several months old watching little shapes on a screen. We are wired for learning and engaging.”
Kids also learn different things from different experiences. Fiore related an anecdote about a preschool teacher who was conducting a remote conference with a parent and child — and the child walked behind the computer to try to find the teacher. “That’s a classic Jean Piaget moment,” she said, referring to the cognitive development stages laid out by Piaget, a Swiss psychologist known for his study of childhood behavior and learning.
Still, several “buts” temper such optimism. Under the best of circumstances, it’s hard work for teachers — and parents. And, of course, it’s impossible for kids who don’t have the necessary technical and human backup.
For all kids, the social aspect of kindergarten is most at risk with remote learning. “One of the really key things for children is learning how to navigate social relationships with teachers and peers,” said Meredith L. Rowe, a professor of early learning and development at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Sharing and caring. Building a skills foundation through human interaction. That’s what kindergarten is supposed to teach, she said. Kindergarten-age kids are “super curious,” said Rowe. They like responsibility, and they rely heavily on routines. What’s also important is play, she said: “Fun spaces, not sitting at a desk, is really how kids learn the best.”
Can that be duplicated remotely? “I really don’t know,” said Rowe. “We don’t have evidence. We’ve never experienced this before.” Her advice: Make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Engage the kids as much as possible. Provide opportunities to interact as much as possible.
Last March, when schools abruptly shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers had to quickly invent remote learning lessons. But they also had students who knew each other and their class routines, and that helped ease the transition.
“Of course, nothing is as good as in person,” said Shayla Furey, a kindergarten teacher at Beachmont Veterans Memorial School in Revere. Still, Furey heard a struggling reader “read her first word on Zoom.” Students were excited when she shared her screen, and they figured out how they could type on it too. “Their minds were blown,” she said. “When people think of remote, they think of a child staring at a screen,” said Furey. But she broke up screen time with word games and movement activities, like going out to look for a leaf.
In a class of 17, Furey said attendance was nearly perfect every day. She worked hard to communicate with parents and did home drop-offs of classroom materials.
Back then, however, the school day was abbreviated. When school starts this month, a full day of remote learning is expected. In Revere, that means from 8:20 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Furey has created a virtual classroom with links and resources for students and parents. When she starts remote teaching, three days will have to be from her classroom; for that, she bought her own air filter.
Nicole Melnik, a kindergarten teacher at the Thompson School in Arlington, will teach a hybrid class — remote three days, in school for two. On remote days, students will have activities to complete when they are not on the screen with their teacher. “We will be building up to a full-day schedule, with many screen breaks, movement breaks, play breaks, and off-screen activities,” she said.
Of her spring remote teaching experience, she said, “I think yes, it worked.” But it takes “a lot of time, collaboration, creativity, and patience, and you really need to rethink every moment of teaching and make all those moments matter.” In some ways, she said, she got to know her students better, by seeing their homes, siblings, and pets. The kids also learned a different kind of independence — how to press mute and unmute, how to turn the camera and share a screen. She planned fun activities like a virtual field day, to get kids excited about logging in to see what special thing would happen that day.
Melnik also pointed out that with the hybrid model, kids will also be adjusting to a new classroom experience that includes masks and plexiglass dividers. But being kindergarten kids, it’s all new anyway. They have no prior experience to measure against what they will navigate this year.
And that should comfort worried parents.
“People are so concerned, so worried about kids falling behind,” said Fiore. “Behind what? Behind an arbitrary curriculum timetable decided upon by other humans. The good news is that people can catch up on development all the time.”
Humans, especially children, are resilient, said Fiore. “Take a deep breath, and realize this temporary but awful situation is not going to cause irreparable harm,” she said.
Relax and take deep breaths. Remember? That’s what you learned in kindergarten.