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Preschoolers and the pandemic: practical ways to keep them learning

Three weeks into our extended coronavirus spring break at home, my husband wanted to discuss what we should be teaching our 4-year-old son.

"Maybe we should be working on his math skills," suggested his dad, who usually works outside the home.

My eyes grew wide as I envisioned myself sitting down with a math workbook attempting to teach my super-energetic child. I appreciate my husband's confidence in me, but let's be real. There was no way that was happening.

"Honey, what do you like to do in the house that you can teach him?" I asked him.

He looked at me quizzically.

"I like writing, geography, gardening, photography, painting and yoga," I told him, grinning.

"Those are the classes I will be conducting around our home. We will also be learning laundry folding, organizing and cleaning. You are welcome to join."

Preschool before the pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, my little guy was in school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. His days started with open discovery time where he and his fellow preschoolers would choose to engage in an art, writing or building project.

Every week had a different topic. One week it was space and the planets, another it was on being kind and thoughtful, with matching activities. Teachers also read books related to the theme. These preschoolers were taught science, socializations skills, tennis and creative movement. All this as well as math-type activities, sequencing and projects designed to enhance their fine motor skills.

Days were packed with playing, too. It was his first year attending school five days a week. He loved it.

I work as a journalist and a consultant teaching business leaders and first responders how to interact with the media in crisis situations. My 20 hours a week to myself were invaluable, especially because my husband worked long hours and would often arrive home at 7 p.m.

Overworking from home

That was before the pandemic.

These days parents need to consider their sanity since many are stressed out, overworked and stretched to their limits. Many are suffering from anxiety from either too much work, or lack of work (and looking for work). And now we're expected to play the role of homeschooling instructor.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing more important than education, especially for little kids who are sponges, but it can come in different forms at different times.

Homeschooling during the Covid-19 crisis, particularly with younger children, is causing a great deal of anxiety, conflict and resentment in parents who need to be calm, sensitive and emotionally available to their children during this difficult time, said Erica Komisar, a licensed clinical social worker, a psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert from New York City.

"It is far more important for the emotional well-being of families to pick and choose what they feel capable of doing, rather than abide by the strict rules of digital learning set by their individual schools," Komisar said. "Less is more now."

My kid's school went online

A few days after we had to shelter in place at home, my son's preschool jumped into action.

The music director was on Facebook Live daily singing with his guitar, teachers were sending out emails before 8 a.m. with fun activity suggestions, some were reading books to the class online and my son's teachers did individual FaceTime calls and sent us letters in the mail.

The teachers even stopped by every student's home to drop off artwork and say hello while engaging in safe social distance practices.

Online learning kept my son engaged for a couple weeks since it was something exciting and new. But in the end, there's no substitute for well-trained early childhood education teachers bringing our little kids together in community to teach them.

And for my very active little guy, focusing on learning is different than a tween or teenager. Zoom calls made him sad. All he saw was his friends on-screen, unable to play with him. (And as is the case with most preschoolers, sitting is not something he enjoys.)

Kids learn by playing

Preschool teachers know that little kids learn by being together.

"As a parent of a 3-year-old preschooler and a psychologist, I can tell you that trying to do a Zoom call with 15 3-year-olds is not easy," said Daniel Selling, director of Williamsburg Therapy Group in Brooklyn.

"These calls are often chaotic and confusing and the children find it hard to focus. The most important part of preschool is the social environment and interactions amongst a peer group."

2018 report by the Alliance for Childhood, a not-for-profit group advocating for less screen time and more play time for children, backs him up.

"Play also supports the development of the more sophisticated parts of the brain, which are necessary for higher forms of cognition and the self-regulation of our emotions," the report said.

That's why it was no surprise when my friend Sarah expressed her frustration at arguing daily with her 6-year-old, a first grader who didn't want to spend eight hours a day on a computer.

"I agree with Ava," I responded when she called. "Enough with organized lessons. Now would be a good time to teach her practical skills like washing a car, cooking and time management."

Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel [no relation to the author] agreed with me, too, suggesting that the thrill of discovery and learning can come in different ways.

"Engaging with our kids in ways that involve connection, curiosity and collaboration is a key to both play and helping the brain to grow well," said Siegel, executive director of the Mindsight Institute, which offers online classes on how to process emotions in a positive way. He is also the author of many books including "The Yes Brain," which focuses on cultivating courage and resilience in kids.

He suggested, "If you are playing a game of Scrabble and exploring words, taking part in a game of ping-pong or even the old-fashioned game of cards, having fun during the experience can be the key to enjoying the time rather than seeing it as a chore."

Time to give up schoolwork

In the beginning of our quarantine, time management was not easy to figure out. I was working late nights and early mornings, the only quiet time available.

During the days I tried to do school activities and play with my son while also attending to household issues. I still felt as if I was drowning in a never-ending messy home.

Finally, I decided that it was time to be practical, so I dreamed up fun ways to teach him life skills and accomplish my household projects.

One day, we did a laundry folding class. My son instructed — he really knew he what he was doing — and I followed. He taught me how to fold pajamas in his own unique way. He then showed me how to put them away. He was proud of his accomplishment, and I was able to get everything folded.

It turns out that almost everything can be turned into a game while also being educational. Baking is a way to teach math and chemistry by counting eggs, learning about measuring units and levels of heat. It is a win-win since everyone is happy with a sweet treat.

Now I teach botany and science classes daily when we visit our new vegetable garden. We see nature in action, learn about the preciousness of food and feel a sense of responsibility to water and nurture our plants. We also have a sense of accomplishment watching them grow and learning ways to naturally protect them from insects.

Since the stay-at-home order started, like most parents, I've had very little time to pursue my own passions. But since photography is a hobby that relaxes me, I handed my little guy my iPhone. I wasn't worried about him damaging it. Heck, I have already cracked the screen twice.

"Let's go take some photos and I will teach you about light and composition," I told him.

In our backyard, we positioned flower pots in the sunlight and shade, and started shooting photos. He was learning a new skill, and I had a few minutes to do something I love.

If outdoor activities are unavailable and online learning is not working out, mix it up a little and embrace a different type of study, one that tackles work you already have at home but also can spark creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.

"Even with older kids, parents have to be careful about not overwhelming them with academic work at a time when they are experiencing a great deal of emotional stress," Komisar explained.

It's a time to focus on our children's emotional well-being and redefine success during Covid-19, she argued, and how we address their needs will decide how well-adjusted they turn out as adults.

Whether it be baking or gardening, organizing or laundry, showing a young child how to participate in household activities can be a great stress reliever and can also help reduce your workload. They are also life skills that your kid will utilize long after this pandemic is over. And amid the crisis, it might just be a way to make some lasting memories.

Article Topic Follows: Health

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