Play, Child Development, and Relationships: A Preschool Teacher in China Shares Her Virtual Teaching Experience
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Special Online Feature
Many early childhood education programs have had to close indefinitely as governments around the world take serious measures to slow transmission of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). As she describes here, Amy Silverman has carefully planned a combination of virtual and hands-on learning opportunities for the children in her program, considering what she can do to support all areas of children’s development and learning under a set of very difficult circumstances.
We applaud teachers who are thinking carefully about how to engage children while they are at home, how to maintain strong relationships and learning opportunities, and how to consider all of children’s learning and developmental needs. We welcome digital tools and technology as one tool among many teachers can choose from as they plan activities to address children’s learning.
There are special considerations related to media and screens that teachers and families should think about for children birth through age 8; one place to look for guidance is NAEYC’s position statement Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, developed with the Fred Rogers Center. Based on research, and with special consideration for how young children learn and develop—including reflection on NAEYC’s position statement on developmentally appropriate practice—the technology and young children statement invites teachers and families to think about all aspects of children's development and learning (including making sure they also have plenty of non-screen time to play, move their bodies, and explore) when selecting technology and media.
We appreciate the efforts of Amy Silverman and the many other teachers who are working to support children and families during this public health crisis. We are hopeful that children and teachers around the world will soon be able to safely return to their schools and child care programs, where thoughtful teachers can observe children’s learning and play, and where children and teachers can continue to build the strong interpersonal relationships that make preschool and early childhood programs such powerful learning environments.
I’m a preschool teacher at an American international school in Guangzhou, China, where the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has meant that we’ve had to take quick action to keep as many people healthy as possible. Schools, businesses, and other public gathering places are closed, and teachers, children, and their families have been asked to stay inside their homes as much as they can. In order to support children’s learning as much as possible during this time—as well as give them as much structure and continuity as possible—my school decided to temporarily shift to online instruction.
As a preschool teacher, I faced a big challenge. I know that I can’t replace the many benefits of our in-person, full-day program with online tools, but with careful planning I have been able to create play-based learning engagements children and caregivers can do together that are developmentally appropriate and that, as much as possible, reflect our school standards. The children and families had already established trusting relationships with me as their regular teacher, as well as strong connections with each other, and I have worked to embed these connections and relationships in our virtual activities.
There are many aspects of preschool that cannot be replicated virtually, such as daily routines; regular interactions in English between teachers, children, and classmates (many of the children in my class are learning English as a second or even third language); and opportunities to build children’s learning through inquiry. But I have been able to create a schedule of learning activities that addresses many areas of children’s development and learning.
I began online learning with my students on February 3, using a combination of email, WeChat (a popular messaging app in China), and the online platforms Seesaw and Zoom. Instead of daily lessons, every Sunday I send out a weekly menu of learning engagements for the children and families to choose the activities they would like to do, each one clearly linked to our standards along with descriptions of the related learning objectives and skills. Since there are often internet connectivity issues in China, all the videos that are posted on Seesaw are also shared in the class WeChat group.
Here are some ways I am promoting developmentally appropriate practice for different developmental domains during online learning.
Social and emotional development
It’s especially important to focus on children’s social and emotional development during an upheaval as significant as the one we are currently facing. Most of the children in my class have been in China since the pandemic began; this means they have been isolated in their homes for the majority of that time and rarely go outside. When they do venture outside, they need to wear masks and keep a safe distance away from other people. This has caused anxiety among children and families. My goal is to continue to teach children and families how to help the children identify their feelings and develop strategies to acknowledge them. I do the following:
- Have children sign in on Seesaw every day, leaving a video or a picture with an audio comment to tell their teachers and classmates how they are feeling. They might say “I am happy” or “I feel sad because it is raining.” I respond to every posting with a voice comment where I ask follow-up questions for the children to reply to as they are able.
- Post yoga and mindfulness videos on Seesaw and in the class WeChat group. The children watch and move along with the videos, and their families take videos or pictures of children doing the activities to share again on Seesaw.
- Share instructions for creating calming bottles using simple materials such as an empty water bottle, oil, water, and loose parts.
- Create activities that encourage children to share about themselves and their cultures. While my class is conducted in English, the children’s home languages include Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean. We celebrated International Mother Language Day (February 21) by asking children to post a song or poem in their home language.
The children in our program receive online video instruction from the school’s PE teachers, but as a classroom teacher I have also created activities that promote both fine and gross motor development. In their homes, children can do the following:
- Use aluminum foil or other materials found in their homes to make sculptures of their family members. This enables the children to use their fine motor skills.
- Hold races in their homes where they pretend to be different animals (slither like a snake, hop like a rabbit, waddle like a duck). They can either try to be faster than another person or use a timer to see how fast they can go.
- Practice their balance as they try different yoga poses during mindfulness activities.
It’s very important to promote interaction between children during this period of isolation because children learn so much from their peers. As they play with one another, they often feel more comfortable trying new things that they might not otherwise do on their own. Here are some examples of activities that support children’s interaction:
- Conduct show-and-tell on Zoom. Through show-and-tell sessions, children can connect with their classmates, learn about each other, ask questions, and get answers. The children in my classroom needed some support in asking questions during show-and-tell, so I sent families an infographic highlighting different types of questions children could ask about the objects their classmates were sharing (Who gave it to you? How does it work? What do you like about it?). Family members were then able to explain these types of questions to the children in their mother tongue. After I shared the infographic, the children were better able to engage in online show-and-tell.
- Encourage children to use the voice comment feature in Seesaw to connect with one another. As children post pictures and videos, their classmates can view them and then add voice comments for everyone to hear. In this way, children and teachers can have conversations in the comments section.
- Invite families to set up their own playdates on Zoom. I made videos showing the families how to set up their own Zoom sessions so children could see and talk to their classmates and have virtual playdates.
Language and literacy development
All young children build their vocabulary daily. For children who are learning second or third languages, as most of the children in my class are, opportunities to build language and literacy skills are especially important to their growth and development. You can try the following language and literacy activities with children:
- Provide opportunities for children to watch and participate in read alouds. I host Video Time with Ms. Amy on Zoom each week; during each 10- to 15-minute session, I read a book, model my thinking about the story as we read, and ask the children questions.
- After read alouds of favorite books, ask children to share alternative endings to the stories in video or through voice posts.
- Encourage children to record videos of themselves interpreting the story in a book based on the illustrations. They can then post their videos on Seesaw for their classmates to watch and add voice comments.
- Record yourself reading books and share them, along with activities based on the book so children can watch and respond at their convenience. For example, I recorded myself reading I Am Yoga, by Susan Verde, and asked the children to try at least three poses from the book and share photos of their attempts.
Online learning requires us to think differently about lesson planning because there are fewer opportunities for learning as there are throughout a typical face-to-face day in preschool. It’s important for me to think about how I can plan my units to include playful activities that address multiple standards. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this planning work is to keep activities simple and to not plan too much because our children are young and need adults to help them and record their learning so it can be shared.
As I plan activities, I decide what standards I want to assess. I approach assessment in one of two ways: I either ask the children’s families to take videos of them doing the activity independently or I assess them through observations in our Zoom sessions. Having playful activities for the children helps keep them engaged. As time has passed and families have become more comfortable with the technology, overall engagement has increased.
One major challenge of this virtual learning is the lack of connection. Every day at least one child tells me on Seesaw that they miss me or their friends and want to go back to school. They are craving interaction with their classmates. This has led me to share two video tutorials (one for phones and one for computers) so families can set up their own Zoom playdates between children.
For preschool teachers who may be just starting to create these types of learning activities for the children in their classes, my advice is to think of the families. We do not want to add too much stress to their lives. Some family members may be required to continue working from home as their jobs permit and will not be able to complete numerous or complicated activities. Activities that allow children and families to have fun while they learn have the most success. One favorite activity in my classroom was for children to watch a video of the preschool teachers dancing and then post a video of themselves dancing. Some children danced alone, others with siblings, and others with the whole family—and we all had a chance to feel connected to one another.
Amy Silverman is a preschool teacher and team leader at the American International School Guangzhou, in Guangzhou, China.