Playing Teacher

Peg Oliveira, PhD
Executive Director
Gesell Program in Early Childhood at the Yale Child Study Center

Many of us parents and guardians accustomed to outsourcing our children’s education are now tasked with educating them at home, thanks to school closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While this should feel like our chance to, once and for all, show the world how children should be educated, instead most of us are reflexively mimicking our own or our children’s less than optimal school experiences. I found myself giddy to “play teacher” with my daughter, making a list of homework sent from school, calendaring projects and defining goals. My time on social media fueled the madness. I was awash in parents on Facebook “out-teacher-ing” one another with pictures of their kids’ rigid home school schedules, DIY classrooms and parent authored worksheets.

Curiously, despite long standing cries from parents to revolutionize our education system to include more play, more movement and less time in the seat, our knee jerk reaction seems to be to replicate the broken pieces of school, in our homes. It feels reminiscent of the “school” I played in my neighbor’s basement, complete with smiley faces on tests. But this is with our own live children. Why, if we have called for an education revolution, are we so eager to perpetuate the drill and kill practices at home now that we are in the driver’s seat?

At Gesell, we support educators to include child centered, inquiry-based learning experiences that build the muscles of creativity, problem solving, self-regulation and collaboration. Research suggests that these Executive Function Skills are more essential for and predictive of future life success than a child’s reading or math scores. Maybe there is a silver lining in this home-schooling blip. For a moment we are free of all the rules and rigidity we have blamed for not allowing us to do school right, such as top down standards, early start times, a lack of access to the outdoors and sufficient time and space to move. Rather than reflexively bringing school, home, maybe we can bring home the idea that school can be something else. In this moment, can we reimagine school, at home?

There are four principles to the science of learning.

Children learn when they are interacting with and allowed time to process information, applying it and digesting through application. Simply hearing, reading, observing or being lectured to does not lead to comprehension or mastery.

Engaged: Children learn when their attention is held. Boredom is the villain in the drama of learning.

Meaningful: Children learn when information is presented in a way that it can be understood in context and applied to their real lives. As Piaget taught us, like stair steps, children build knowledge based only on what they already know, and then amending that understanding to incorporate new knowledge. Learning does not happen in a vacuum.

Socially Interactive: Children are relational creatures. They learn through interacting with others (you). Worksheets make for poor playmates, and even worse learning mates.

This research on how kids brains actually learn gives us full permission to experiment in this unusual moment where a majority of American children are expected to do school from home. This of course does not address the needs of the many children who are home, alone. There are different strategies for addressing those kids’ needs, but likely many will be casualties of this online learning moment. Still, if you are a parent or guardian home with your children and eager to lead your child through home schooling, then I challenge you to be less robotic about the undertaking and take the lead.

I’m starting with some of the following ideas:

  1. Take it slow; give everyone an acclamation period. Let’s not forget that this is scary for everyone, including kids. Give everyone a little breather. Go outside. Dig out your board games. Clean up your Netflix queue. Plan some baking and cooking for the time ahead.
  2. Get Connected. In classrooms, step one is to create supportive relationships. Don’t take for granted that just because kids are home, they feel safe and connected. They may miss their friends. Young children may not understand if they will ever go back to school, and children of all ages are likely confused and anxious. Make time to allow children to ask questions. Plan for how they will stay in touch with friends. Many parents are wondering how to bring up the pandemic in a way that will be reassuring and not make kids more worried than they already may be. Here is some advice from the experts at the Child Mind Institute.
  3. Build in some anxiety busters. First, get moving. Movement is miracle grow for the brain and calms the nervous system. We all know that kids don’t get nearly enough exercise in a traditional school setting. Use this time to put some movement, and shared quality time, in the bank. Tune up the bikes, clean off the rollerblades, play with your dog and get out there, together. Also, add in some intentional relaxation exercises like yoga or mindfulness. Insist that some part of the day be dedicated to (screen free) chilling out.
  4. Plan for a routine to your days but resist a schedule. Ensuring some consistency and a rhythm will help kids feel secure; but watch out for being too rigid. Let kids have some input into the plans for each day. This is not the time to pull out the carrots and the sticks to train your child to clean their room as you’d always hoped they would. We all could use a little understanding right now if we aren’t working at full capacity. Kids too.
  5. Empower kids and support them in being independent. Living under the eyes of adults all day will not be easy. Make sure to confer with kids and be clear about the new rules in this new world. Explain why rules exist and when possible create opportunities for kids to be in control, empowered, and independent, in age appropriate ways.
  6. Think projects, not paper. Are there topics that both you and your kids are interested in spending some time on? Many museums now offer free virtual tours. Can you find some books to read or podcasts to listen to together and then write, draw and discuss your thoughts and questions. For example, my family is following The Iditarod sled dog race, offering opportunities for reading, expanding vocabulary, mapping, math and cooing over adorable pups. Make sure there are both inside and outside opportunities for exploration. In the Northeast, ponds are filled with life at this time of the spring. Gardens can be readied. 

In this reset, my intention is to first accept that this is a trying time for them and for us. As always, until we attend to our social and emotional needs, learning cannot happen. Let’s take time to help kids feel safe and connected, first and foremost. And then if we do have time and energy to commit to home schooling, let’s put it into building active, engaged, meaningful and social experiences for our kids, rather than strapping them to a desk, yet again, to do worksheets and math programs.

If you are intent on continuing to do school at home, it’s understandable. The concerns about falling behind, not to mention going crazy with so much time at home with kids, is legitimate. The struggle is real. There are many resources available to support you. Here are a few:

To ensure all kids can access online resources and stay connected Comcast has opened the Xfinity WiFi Network nationally for free.

Here is a list of Anti-Oppressive/Anti-Racist Home School Resources

Free online courses for kids from our partners at Scholastic as well as day by day projects by grade level.

And for our teachers navigating this new world, here’s a great resource to help get your whole team on board an online.

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  • In this challenging time we all have a great opportunity to do some of the most meaningful work. The value of playing a board game or taking a walk with your child is priceless. Thank you for your insight & resources!

    Margaret Mary Gethings on

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