May 8, 2020

Finding Playfulness Amid Campus Closure

Gina Maurer and Siyuan Fan

This post is written by Gina Maurer and Siyuan Fan, two PoP research assistants who are master’s students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. On March 10 Gina and Siyuan learned that all Harvard classes would transition to virtual instruction, and that students would be asked to leave campus in the proceeding days. As members of the PoP USA team, Gina and Siyuan have been collecting and analyzing data about what playful learning looks and feels like in Boston-area schools. They now offer personal reflections about the role of playfulness in their own lives during COVID-19.

The Potential for Distancing to Cultivate Connection

Gina Maurer

Abrupt goodbyes, rushed library book returns, frantic packing – I left my apartment within days of President Bacow’s announcement of Harvard’s closure, watching the desolate campus grow smaller in my rearview mirror as I drove home. There are many ways that I had imagined my time as a Harvard student would end, but this was most certainly not one of them.

How would we continue our master’s program in the wake of a pandemic, with students now spread out across the world? And what about our learning community? Since day one of orientation, Dean Long, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), has emphasized that learning from our peers is an even more valuable and essential component of our educational experience than the content we learn from professors.

How would we keep the HGSE learning community together during a time when we needed each other more than ever? There were more questions than answers.

Gina takes a last photo of Harvard Yard before she leaves campus to head home

But, at our graduate school, there was also more optimism than negativity, more calmness than fear, and a zealous commitment to maintaining and strengthening our sense of community.

I was apprehensive about the transition to virtual courses, and the first week of online learning was not without challenges. But, learning aside (can I say that as an education graduate student?), the transition to virtual learning has had a surprising effect – it’s made me feel closer with my peers and professors, even though we are all physically farther apart.

Yes, I’ve learned the course content, but I’ve also learned a great deal about my peers’ coffee mug selection, wall art decisions, and refrigerator magnet choices. I’ve met parents, spouses, children, and pets (so many cats – who knew the Harvard community was so full of cats?).

Suddenly and unintentionally, our learning community’s connection became deeper in a more nuanced way. The unprecedented circumstances we are all grappling with has given us the opportunity to learn about each other to a greater extent and connect more profoundly.

Transitioning to online learning has allowed us to know professors and other students not only as mentors and peers, but as people – with families and music tastes and whistling tea kettles. All of a sudden, we have a glimpse into each other’s lives that was not able to be seen on the grounds of campus. Recipes are now being exchanged in the same breath as an academic paper discussion.

Knowing one another on a more personal level has added a level of playfulness to every virtual class session I’m a part of. This playfulness stems from deeper personal connections among learners, and is apparent through meaningful discussions, laughter, and importantly, a shared feeling of connectedness with each other and our community.

While I miss walking the pathways in Harvard Yard, running into friends at the library, and physically being present on campus, I do not miss the feeling of being a member of a learning community.

Because I’m not just a part of a learning community anymore. I’m simply a part of a community. And that is so much more meaningful.

Playfulness under Unplayful Circumstances

Siyuan Fan

It was 9 am on the first day of my quarantine spring break. All I saw on my phone was the rapidly increasing number of people infected with COVID-19, my email inbox exploding with messages about moving courses online, and worries and warnings from my parents across the Pacific Ocean. Sitting at the table with breakfast in front of me, I felt so panicked and anxious that the delicious food seemed unappetizing.

I've always liked to plan ahead, and this was definitely not in my plan. I had imagined all kinds of uncertainties that could have happened in my work and study life as an international student coming to Boston for the first time, but COVID-19 was certainly not what I had envisioned for my spring break and studies.

I reflected on the classes I observed in Boston-area schools pre-COVID-19 during our PoP research, where teachers were able to bring about playfulness even under circumstances full of uncertainties created by children. I think the “active ingredient” there was a playful mindset, which is the key to navigating uncertainties. With that in mind, rather than dwell on a ‘ruined’ spring break plan, I decided to view it as an opportunity to explore what a day of playfulness might look like.    

At 10 am I decided to do something to divert my attention from the stressful news. I glanced at the bedside table and saw my unfinished handcraft DIY wooden miniature dollhouse model kit that I bought so long ago and had never finished due to lack of time. I opened the dusty box, trying to re-familiarize myself with those tiny components and complex instructions. I gradually lost myself in the cozy mini-house I made and started to imagine the feeling of lying on the soft bed with dim light from the roof and spring breeze from the window. This attracted my full attention. There was no more space in my mind to worry about the virus and the news. Surprisingly, it didn’t take too long for me to complete the last piece of the house. A giant amount of satisfaction filled my heart. Looking at the complex yet delicate furniture I made by myself, I felt like those tiny parts were something in my life I could take control of and a feeling of pride arose as I thought back on the technically demanding work I did on my own. This unplanned playfulness ignited a desire to try out more unplanned things.

The DIY miniature house model

At 12:30 pm I joined my roommates in cooking spicy food, which I used to reject immediately because of the fear of making a fool of myself if I could not bear the burning taste. It turned out that I started to love the taste and the most fascinating element about this trial was the feeling of not being frightened and taking risks! Different from the coziness and satisfaction after completion of the dollhouse, this time, the playful mindset brought up a sense of surprise and empowerment.

The spicy food

I found more playfulness in a game I played on my mobile phone at 2:00 pm and in an online dance class I participated in at 4:00 pm. Time flew fast. Soon it was 11 pm and I was sitting at my table, reading a book I bought long ago. This brought me some inner peace and sereneness. Concentrating was not hard when I fully immersed myself in the book’s fantasy world and the twists and turns of the heroine’s life. I was travelling without leaving home.

At 12:00 am, lying on the bed, I thought back on the day I just experienced. Although it began with panic and anxiety, it ended up being peaceful and relaxing.  Having a playful mindset helped me to stay positive and keep an eye out for inspiration, as opposed to my typical day full of endless schoolwork and running from place to place. It’s a mindset that made me enjoy the present and the process, whatever the results might be.

I note that this is not quarantine-special; this is something I can actually apply to my daily life. Thinking about the days when I don’t need to self-distance, do I have the patience to complete a task requiring carefulness and time?  Do I take a look at my friends around who offer company that I take for granted? Do I have the braveness to challenge myself and take a step forward in learning new things? Or do I have the inner peace to enjoy the present and fully immerse myself into it?