I have been teaching preschool for more than 30 years, and I’ve been through some troubling times—from the AIDS crisis to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. After these tragic events, I didn’t always know how to best respond to my students’ anxieties. What is developmentally appropriate when children are experiencing incomprehensible things in their community or on television? How could my coteachers and I help children cope with trauma when we ourselves are traumatized? Back then, we had candid, face-to-face conversations with the children about their fears. We responded with compassion when their worries surfaced during play. And often, we simply sat with them and hugged them.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a unique crisis in that we cannot physically comfort our young students. All the emotional benefits of nonverbal communication—the affirmation of eye contact, the reassurance of holding hands, the warmth of a lap—are lost. We are separated from our students, and they from each other, unable to learn through communal play.
The school where I teach is a screen-free institution; I personally believe children benefit greatly from a childhood free of pixels. So when Governor Gavin Newsom issued the shelter-in-place order in California, we found ourselves in a quandary as to how to stay connected with our students. After careful consideration, I decided to attempt a Zoom meeting, and I faced a steep learning curve. Obviously, I don’t work in a corporate office, and video conference calls are not a part of my day-to-day routine. I wasn’t even sure if Zoom was appropriate for my young students, but it was worth trying.
You know what? It’s not ideal, but it’s not terrible either. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Sudden security issues caught us off guard, and we aren’t the most technically proficient lot. But in the few weeks since our first virtual circle time, my colleagues and I have learned a great deal about Zoom for teachers of young children—and even for social-distancing grandparents, too.
Issues that would have resolved themselves organically in our classroom—like determining whose turn it is to speak, interpreting nonverbal cues, and making sure every child is given the opportunity to participate—had to be re-navigated under quarantine. Some best practices:
Designate a colleague as a Zoom cohost so that person can manage the meeting while the host leads the activity. The cohost can watch for raised hands and use Spotlight view to convert a child’s feed into full screen on everyone else’s monitor. When kids share small things like a drawing or a bug they discovered on a morning walk, everyone gets a better look in Spotlight view than in a thumbnail. (Always ask first if the child would like to be spotlighted; sometimes children are feeling shy and would rather not take center stage.)
Deploy Mute and Breakout Rooms. When in the actual classroom, I love the casual banter as we all settle down into circle time. The ease with which conversations flow in person does not occur on Zoom. Casual repartee is reduced to truncated comments. We’ve become adept at using the Mute All and Unmute All buttons, because, well, kids are noisy, and that noise is anonymized and amplified when you leave it up to Zoom to determine who gets heard. Breakout rooms allow for smaller groups to have more natural, less-stilted conversations, but those rooms must be monitored for untoward behavior like the sharing of poop emojis.
Get ’Em Moving
I asked one of my 5-year-olds what she missed most from the time before sheltering in place, and she answered, “I miss playing with my friends. I miss sleep overs and picking fruit. I miss running with dogs and climbing on the play structure.” All these things involve a great deal of movement. The younger the child, the bigger the wiggle. In the classroom, I gauge how antsy my students are during circle time and can respond accordingly by adjusting the tempo of the meeting or adjourning early. However, in a Zoom meeting, all that’s much harder to assess, and some children will get up and wander away, leaving me puzzling over their whereabouts. It sounds counterintuitive, but in order to be attentive, children must move their bodies to engage their vestibular system, which provides our brains with information about movement, balance, and spatial awareness. Alternating between stillness and movement is key to self-regulation and learning in young children, so activities like beginner’s yoga or a dance party on Zoom are good ways to keep them present and engaged. Spotlight view is particularly useful in featuring whoever is leading the activity. Also, scavenger hunts are a great way to let the children run free but also motivate them to return to the meeting to show what they have found. Remember, no two families will have the same objects at home, so keep the hunt simple and open-ended. Ask them to find something round, soft, or heavy, or something that makes a sound, as opposed to a Harry Potter book or a Marvel action figure.
Sing, Sing a Song
Preschool teachers understand that music and singing are instrumental in helping children get in touch with their feelings. Remote learning means that not only are we singing with the children over the internet, we’re sometimes singing with their parents present, which can make us feel a bit self-conscious. Good thing no one expects us be a Maria von Trapp! Unfortunately, Zoom is calibrated for meetings, not sing-a-longs. If more than one person is singing, the sound becomes choppy. Children sit at varying distances from the mic. Too close and it sounds like gale force winds. Too far and Zoom registers the voice as ambient noise and filters it out. It’s not an ideal solution, but if you are leading the song, mute everyone else and assume the children are singing along with you. Trust me, they are. Maybe someday soon the engineers at Zoom will develop a sing-along mode.
How to Read a Book (Seriously)
Reading aloud from a well-loved book, surrounded by inquisitive, laughing children is my idea of heaven, but my first attempt at story time via Zoom was like purgatory. The children couldn’t see the pictures well as I held the book to the camera, and I don’t have a lot of children’s books at home. I tried taking photos of the pages of the books I do have to create slideshows, but that was terribly time consuming. After much research, I found several free resources for online picture books. Our local library allows you to “check out” books online. Or for more recent picture books, I downloaded Kindle versions from Amazon and shared them via the app on my laptop. And voila! The children could see the words and illustrations as I shared my screen and read aloud. I sometimes use the Spotlight tool—not the same as spotlighting a speaker—from the Annotate pulldown menu to track the words for the children as I read or to draw attention to details in the illustrations. Zoom engineers might want to consider renaming the Spotlight annotation tool to differentiate it from Spotlight View.
Let the Children Lead, Sometimes
Early on in quarantine, my coteachers and I noticed our students were exhibiting seemingly disengaging behaviors that we would normally curb during circle time in the classroom. Some children would be upside down on armchairs in their living rooms. Others would take their laptops under the kitchen table where they might draw or play with their toys. Many of them made forts from sofa cushions and blankets, attending virtual circle time from their own personal shelters. We decided not to discourage this sheltering behavior, because children feel safe in enclosed spaces, away from the rapid cycle of stress and ennui we grown-ups are currently feeling. And from those literal safe spaces, they’ve adapted to Zoom faster than most adults. They’ve learned how to share their screens and to use the chat feature; one child sends me way too many pumpkin emojis at the end of each circle time. While I’ve disabled the share screen function for them—too high a risk of oversharing—I cannot bring myself to disable the chat function, because while a stream of emojis might be overkill, it’s a child’s way of expressing concern, generosity, and love, even if they don’t know how to spell.