March 21, 2020

Playful Home Learning Series: #1

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


Playful online learning in 4th grade

by Ben Mardell

Meredith Peterson is a 4th grade teacher at the Summit School, an independent school in North Carolina. She teaches reading, social studies, and science and is a home room teacher (focused on socio-emotional learning). Jen and I spoke with Meredith on Summit's first day of distance learning. Each day her students meet online for 30 minutes, and participate in 3 hours of offline activities developed by Meredith and her colleagues. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

Why do you think it is important to continue playful learning when schools are closed?

It's more important than ever. Students are most likely feeling stress. Many of my students have parents who work at the area hospitals, and cannot easily be at home with them. They might hear of grocery shortages, or be worried for a grandparent. We know this pandemic may cause stress, and we know that play can reduce stress and tension. 

Our priorities have not changed, but shifted. We’ve always thought of the wellbeing of our students. What does that mean now? Making them feel safe and secure first, because they aren’t going to be able to learn anything if they don’t feel that way. It will take more to them to get there. Play can be that bridge.

How are you thinking about making learning playful?

Community and continuity.

In the sense of community, our online sessions are opportunities to get to know each other in different ways. Today was my first online session with my home room. One student introduced his new puppy to our class, and another shared a LEGO city that he had spent days working on. Those things wouldn't have been as easy to share in person.  

We're maintaining continuity by recreating similar experiences to what our students would expect in our classroom. Each day, we have a morning greeting. We've sent home these surprise envelopes labeled A,B,C, etc. Each morning, children go online to see which one they should open. The one labeled A has some pipe cleaners, and the prompt is: What can you make with these? Post a photo of what you made. It’s a five minute exercise. I’m thinking of making glasses with mine. These are posted on a discussion page. The kids can see my postings. And they are encouraged to comment on each other’s.

Juliet's pipe cleaner flamingo (photo courtesy of Juliet's family)

Can you share some concrete strategies/activities?

As the reading teacher, when we're at school I let students choose where to read, to be more playful. I have kids reading with flashlights in the closet, and kids in the loft. Once, I had a student whose favorite place to read was the recycling bin. As long as they are reading, it’s fine. So thinking of how they can do this at home, I had a challenge for them: build a cozy reading spot and take a photo of it to share.

Riley's home-learning reading fort (photo courtesy Riley's mom)

In our virtual meetings we will be reading to each other round robin style. While we don’t usually do this in class, some of my students need fluency practice, so I want to make sure they are reading out loud. Since some kids get nervous about reading out loud I’m putting a spin on it – I sent everyone home with mustaches, which they don’t know about yet. That is also in a surprise envelope. Just to take the edge off it. Other props, like sunglasses, are also encouraged.

How are you talking to your ten-year-old students about the pandemic?

It’s been easier than I expected it to be, which is a reflection of the work we’ve done as a school. Our culture is very cohesive. These kids are so good about listening to each other and not prejudging. Even so, they will come in asking questions. They're genuinely curious. I’ll answer them when appropriate. If not appropriate, I’ll let them talk about their feelings, asking them “How does it make you feel when you hear that? Are you concerned? About what?" When other students share similar thoughts and feelings I find it normalizes it. I can’t say, “It will all be OK. Don’t worry about it.” I can say, “It’s normal to feel this way. Many of us are having these feelings. That’s all right. And we don’t have to spend our whole day feeling this way. We can think about it, name it, and own it. And do things that take our minds off it.”

In an online conversation this morning one student asked what we can do to help others. Someone suggested gardening because the food banks might be low when this is over, and it's still safe to plant crops (in North Carolina you can donate fresh produce to food pantries). Or with the help of parents, sending positive messages. Or just calling grandparents. They came up with a lot of ideas. They want to be contributors and help.    


There is much to learn from teachers and their students who are bravely and playfully moving into this uncharted territory. We plan to continue to use the popatplay blog to share ideas as educators around the world adjust to supporting their learners during a time of school closures.