In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, this is the sixth post in a series about playful teaching and learning during prolonged school closures. That we are talking about play and playfulness during this global crisis doesn’t mean we don’t take the situation seriously. We are deeply saddened by the ongoing loss of life and toll this outbreak will continue to take. Yet as educators who understand the value of learning through play, we feel a responsibility to help playful learning continue for the many children who will be learning at home.
As a teacher educator in the Early Childhood Education program at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, I don’t teach any online courses. About half my workweek is typically spent in local public school kindergarten classrooms, where I mentor student teachers during fieldwork experiences. This fieldwork is paired with a weekly student teaching seminar, which has a focus on teaching science to young children and is deeply informed by the Pedagogy of Play emerging framework.
So when the news came that Boston University would be shifting to virtual learning effective immediately, my first concern was for a couple of students who would need access to reliable internet and laptops at home. How would they stay connected? How could we help? Fortunately, university and community resources were able to get that essential structure in place. Then new questions rushed in. How can I keep making this college course an experience of playful learning for my students? Is playful even what we need right now?
Several weeks in to this new way of teaching, here’s what I’m learning:
Students want and need to talk about COVID-19 and how it is impacting their lives and the lives of the children in their fieldwork placements. I make sure to make some space for this in every session.
Before COVID-19, we used to sit together on the floor each week, in a circle, and play a card game I invented called “Connection, Question, Success”. In this game, students use cards to discuss and connect to each other’s classroom experiences and course readings. We can’t sit in a circle now, so we open our sessions by playing virtual “tag” instead – each person tagging the next as we take turns sharing experiences. Or we play “Rose, Thorn, and Bud” to share about something positive about in the past week (rose), something that was challenging (thorn), and something we look forward to (bud). My goal is to welcome the range of emotions that are coming up at this time, while maintaining a playful mindset that can help us all stay connected with each other in the virtual space. Having a playful mindset helps us imagine possibilities rather than limits, stay creative in our thinking, and maintain optimism that we will get through this.
Learning through play is still possible in the virtual environment - it’s just different.
During the Friday science seminars, my class often takes trips to places like the Arnold Arboretum to uncover invertebrates in the soil, or the Boston Museum of Science to learn about informal scientific learning for young children. All of this makes for a pretty playful teaching and learning experience. We’re staying home now, but thanks to some creative collaboration with the educators at these wonderful local institutions, we’ve brought those sessions to Zoom instead. One week, we all did an experiment in our kitchens, examining properties of materials ¬– frying eggs, melting butter, and observing what happens to a rock when we put it in boiling water (not much – other than getting very hot!).
The next week, during a virtual session with Meredith Mahoney, a museum educator from the Educator Resource Center at the Boston Museum of Science, we tried a Barrier Activity in which we each tried to describe household items so a partner could guess which material we were talking about. “What does it feel like” “What does it sound like when you drop it?” and “How does it smell?” “Like…cookies?!” Turns out this produced a lot of oral language and a lot of laughter, while engaging in learning through play with a purpose as we considered young children as sensory-minded learners.
Get lots of feedback from students, and reinvent or stop doing things that don’t work.
In our first virtual class, our usually talkative and engaged group of students were reticent. Conversation slowed down and when I asked for a “fist to five” assessment of how the session had gone at the end (hold up 0 to 5 fingers – 5 for an excellent experience, 0 for a terrible one) most students held up 3, 4 fingers. Not bad, but not great. What needed to change? More time in breakout rooms, they suggested. Shorten the class session and take a longer break in the middle, to mitigate Zoom fatigue. Figure out a system for calling on folks to get rid of that unproductive and uncomfortable virtual silence. This feedback in hand, I’ve reshaped our subsequent sessions to be shorter and differently structured. I keep asking for feedback. I imagine we will keep adapting and changing the rules as we gain experience in this virtual learning space.
This week, my students are preparing for a virtual session with Ana Maria Caballero, a nature educator from the Arboretum. Before the session, we will try some Everyday Nature Tasks the Arboretum has published online, like spending a few minutes listening for birdsong, or taking close-up photographs of items in nature. We will each do this offline, at a safe social distance, in our backyards, from our balconies, or on neighborhood walks. When we get together on Friday, we’ll share our experiences through video, audio recordings, and photographs (image below). I’m looking forward to more playful learning with and from each other as we discuss designing nature-based learning experiences for young children. Yes, teacher education looks different right now, but playful learning doesn’t have to end. And the longer this situation goes on, the more convinced I feel that any moments my students and I can spend together sharing a playful mindset will do all of us a little good.
Megina is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Before joining the BU faculty, she was a PoP researcher from 2015-2018 and continues to collaborate with the project as a PoP Fellow.