April 6, 2020

Playful Home Learning Series: #5

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, this post is the fifth 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.

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Playful home learning: the parent perspective

by Sidsel N. Overgaard

“It's a weird, unexpected situation that is helping us knowing our child much better.”

In the Playful Home Learning series we’ve heard from several teachers offering encouragement and ideas for engaging students from afar at this strange moment in time. But what about the adults on the other end of the line? Parent collaboration is a critical element of education at any time, but now as parents work, play and head to the cafeteria alongside their children, the opportunity to engage them in the playful learning process has never been greater…or more complicated.

In an effort to test the temperature of the water “out there” after our first week of distance learning, ISB’s leadership team sent a survey to parents (as well as Middle School students). The survey was designed to be quick, and most people completed it in under two minutes.  At the same time, the invitation for feedback launched a small flood of emails to our head of school’s inbox: missives from parents with more to say, more thanks to give, more suggestions to offer.

Based on the results of that survey and the content of those emails, two themes have emerged in our attempt to gauge the incredibly diverse and therefore somewhat elusive “parent perspective” on distance learning at ISB: appreciation and balance.  

“In general, how are you feeling about our distance learning programme?”

This was the first question on our survey, and most parents set the slider somewhere between 7 and 8 on a scale of 10—a remarkably positive response given the rapid pace of implementation and some inevitable first-week kinks.

I think few would disagree that ISB has certain advantages when it comes to distance learning. One of those is resources: most ISB families are well-equipped with the tools for online education and we feel extremely fortunate for that privilege.

But the level of parent satisfaction isn’t just about resources. Parents have been expressing appreciation not just about the fact that their children are occupied, but about the about the way they are occupied.  I feel it too. For two weeks, I have sat across the table from my 11 year old as she has managed full days of school with (mostly) quiet confidence—meeting online with her teachers and classmates, mastering new concepts in geometry, analyzing the works of Beatrix Potter. My 9 year old has experienced a steeper learning curve with some good days and some bad days. But as the weeks have passed I have also watched as trust in her own abilities has grown and her reflexive requests for help have quieted.

Sidsel's kids, Else and Mette, in their home learning environment

When we get positive feedback from parents, and comments that speak to the engagement of teachers, the independence of students, and the quality of the work, I can’t help but think that this is—at least in part—the result of being a school committed to learning through play.

“Both of our kids participate naturally in the distance learning programme and we are very thankful…that our children have been prepared from their previous school years to actually handle a situation like this.”

As this quote from one parent implies, ISB students and teachers have been unintentionally preparing for this moment for years. Take, for example, Student Composed Schedule weeks, an idea sparked by one of our Pedagogy of Play teacher-researchers, which have been held in the ISB Middle School since 2018. During these semiannual two-week stretches, the regular schedule gets kicked to the curb, and students are responsible for designing their own school day: managing their time and assignments and finding peers and teachers to ask for help when necessary. There is no question that this experiment in independent learning has made the current situation feel less foreign to students (and teachers!) than it might otherwise have felt.

There are also advantages at the Kindergarten and Primary level.  As a school where inquiry-driven learning is the aim, and where tests are all but non-existent for those younger than 12, we are constantly experimenting with different ways of making student learning visible to parents. Not long ago this led us to a digital portfolio platform called Seesaw. Since the start of this year, our PYP Coordinator has been working hard to ensure consistent, student-driven use of the program across grade levels. Now that Seesaw is familiar to both students and parents, it has proven an indispensable tool for communication and feedback on open-ended, playful assignments during these weeks of distance learning.

Staying connected via online platforms

“I can tell that my children are exhausted in a different way than they are when a normal school day is over.”

For all these reasons, ISB has been able to provide a fairly high degree of normalcy for students—especially older students—during these last few weeks.  For parents who are attempting a full workload from home, seeing their children work through a school day with confident independence can feel like a godsend: “You’re a lifesaver!” they say.

But…

As the parent quote above reminds us, the fact is that these are not normal times. To pretend otherwise not only adds to the exhaustion and pressure some families are feeling—it is potentially a missed opportunity.

Every family situation is unique. Working parents with older children may appreciate the “normalcy” ISB provides, but parents with younger children who—no matter how independent—require a higher degree of support, may be finding themselves overwhelmed. These are likely some of the families that have requested, “a little more flexibility in the assignments children receive.”  Kindergarten parents, especially, are in a tight spot. There is only so much self-guided schoolwork very young children can manage. Physical proximity—one of the main casualties of this pandemic—is critical.

And then there are the families where perhaps one or both parents are not working at the moment, and for whom this strange moment presents a rare opportunity for something completely different: time to be together as a family, to teach the kids how to cook or change a tire, to learn through play outside the school context.  For these families, suggestions might be more appropriate than assignments.

”Your teachers are demonstrating huge engagement and so much preparation for every class. Huge kudos to your staff for all their hard work!!”

With all these diverse wants and needs, there will never be a single answer to the question of how to do distance learning “right” from a parent perspective. But just as our teachers are always thinking about how to make school a place of choice, wonder and delight for a diversity of student learners, they are now trying to do the same with parents in mind.  Everyday they tweak the balance—trying out new types of assignments (required, optional, online, offline, with parent help, without parent help) and finding new ways to support with humor, feedback and moments of social engagement.  

At this moment in time, I think it’s important to remember that some of the most crucial indicators of playful learning relate to how we recognize and use moments of serendipity: being spontaneous, taking risks, improvising, exploring, working through a challenge.  As challenging as the current reality is, it is also an opportunity to explore this side of learning through play, and parents are helping to push us in that direction: to reflect, to iterate, to adjust.  All very familiar concepts to any playful teacher.

Head of School Camilla Uhre Fog perhaps said it best last Friday, when she sent a note of encouragement to ISB staff—many of whom are also parents juggling children while working from home: “While we keep repeating “quality over quantity” and “let’s keep it simple,” I know—and am grateful—that we all stay true to who we are: a community of ambitious playful learners.”

In whatever form that takes.  

Sidsel is the Senior Communications Manager at the International School of Billund, and is currently facilitating home learning with her daughters Else, age 11, and Mette, age 9, both students at ISB. Sidsel has been with PoP since we began in 2015.