Traveling Turtles, Cardboard Playgrounds, and Bear Puppets: How Early Childhood Educators are Ensuring Joyful, Engaged Learning at a Distance

Blog Post
Photo courtesy of Georgina Ardalan
Nov. 9, 2020

Early childhood education at a distance is far from ideal. Since March, students, educators, and families have grappled with technology challenges, a lack of socialization, and a new structure of digital learning which, at times, is at odds with what decades of research has shown to be best for young children. Despite this massive interruption to children’s pre-K and kindergarten experiences, early childhood educators are taking innovative approaches to ensuring that their virtual classrooms remain developmentally appropriate, engaging, and joyful for their young learners.

In the 1980’s, the early childhood field embraced the term developmentally appropriate practices to describe ideal early learning environments in which young children thrive. Sue Bredekamp, an early childhood education specialist who was a primary author of NAEYC’s Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs, explained that NAEYC’s newest definition is neatly summarized as “joyful, engaged learning.” “I always thought of it as ways of teaching that vary for and adapt to the age, experiences, interests, and abilities of young children within a given age range to help them meet challenging and achievable goals,” Bredekamp said in an interview.

Over the past month, I spoke with several early educators from across the country who shared ways in which they promote developmentally appropriate practices that inspire engagement and joy during remote learning.

Source: Photo courtesy of Georgina Ardalan

Georgina Ardalan, a pre-K teacher of a three-year-old class in Washington, DC Public Schools, has a classroom pet named Buddy, a 30-year-old eastern box turtle, who is helping build classroom community and independence from afar. Buddy rotates every three weeks to a new student in the class. As Ardalan posited, “the importance of preschool is creating independence for children,” which Buddy helps foster by encouraging the children to act as his primary caregivers. To strengthen their classroom community, his caretakers give updates about Buddy during synchronous learning sessions and share photos in the newsletter.

Source: Photo courtesy of Georgina Ardalan

Ardalan is also creating “How To” guides with her pre-K students during their 15-minute one-on-one sessions because, as she noted, “three-year-olds are experts at things that they’re experts in.” During the sessions, students work with Ardalan to create a guide to their chosen themes, which include birdwatching, rainbow hunting, reading books, being a dinosaur, and playing with fire trucks. The “How To” guides are then shared with students during synchronous meetings and with families in the newsletter.

Source: Photo courtesy of Tayo Enna

Tayo Enna, a kindergarten teacher in Oak Grove School District in San Jose, California, described how his STEAM school is closing the resource gap by providing a weekly distribution of hands-on learning materials. Enna partnered with Resource Area for Teaching to donate open-ended craft materials, and collaborated with colleagues to provide bags of manipulatives and kindergarten-friendly art supplies, which Enna uses to support students’ makerspaces.

During a recent literacy, engineering, and executive function lesson, Enna read The Recess Queen and prompted students to create an ideal playground using their makerspace materials. Students’ finished products were entirely unique, with designs ranging from a hybrid dog park/playground to rock climbing walls and merry-go-rounds. Enna used the experience to promote deeper thinking about how students would use their ideal playground safely and to discuss their creative processes. “I always ask them, what was a challenge? Because they need to know that there are struggles and that they are resilient,” Enna explained. “We also talk about the joy, what did you enjoy about this lesson, what did you learn, so that they see it’s not just about the completed task, but the journey that they took.”

Source: Photo courtesy of Mandy Yom

Mandy Yom, a kindergarten teacher in Skokie School District 73½ in Skokie, Illinois, teaches a class of English Learners whom she’s been supporting in creative ways. “Last March when we went to remote learning,” Yom said, “I started a YouTube channel called Headbands and Books because my students don’t have families that are reading to them in English.” Yom also did Facebook Live readings so that she could reach families “in a way that was most convenient for them.”

Source: Photo courtesy of Mandy Yom

Yom has taken steps to meet students where they are in terms of technology and needs. Realizing the enormity of time spent helping families navigate technology, Yom and her colleagues worked with their technology department to add icons to the children’s iPads that open Zoom rooms for each teacher when the student clicks the teacher’s face. Yom also began using a bear puppet to speak with a student with selective mutism, who will speak using his four different puppets during their one-on-one sessions. Yom plans to send puppet-making supplies home to all of her students so that everyone in the class will soon be able to use puppets when speaking on camera.

While these educators have made tremendous accommodations to create engaging virtual learning environments, they may be asked to adapt once again when their districts open for socially distanced in-person learning. When this shift happens, Enna suggests teachers emphasize establishing norms not only for classroom learning, but also for creating friendships. “I would imagine coming back into a classroom, kids will be very excited, and very anxious, very eager to connect with their friends that they’ve been seeing on screen for all these months and now getting to see in a physical setting, so just honor that,” he explained. “I think that we really have to not put academics on pause, but just make sure we include a lot of time to have conversations to get to know one another.”

Ensuring that children’s remote and socially-distanced learning experiences are as developmentally appropriate as they can be has not been an easy feat, but early childhood educators are rising to the challenge. As Bredekamp noted, “Families, and we hope they recognize it even more than ever, are fortunate to have creative, innovative, committed, brilliant teachers for their children who really care and love them.”

For other examples of developmentally appropriate approaches to early childhood education, please explore New America’s video, blog, and article collections page What It Looks Like to Promote Young Children’s Growth and Discovery.

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