This is a view from the frontline. Writing during the lockdown, MEG ANASTASI, an early childhood educator in a long day care setting, reflects on the push to online learning caused by COVID-19. She worries it is submerging what we know about the way young children learn. Educators and teachers, she says, know that play is at the core of learning and educator practice in early childhood. And sharing this insight with families is more important than sharing videos, worksheets and instructions.
With the current rapid evolution from classroom teaching to online and remote delivery, the early childhood sector is in a strange place. We’re an evolving sector that for years has been pushing for more recognition as educational professionals; for something which is more deeply embedded in the everyday practice of the job than many could imagine.
It’s an important job—that much we know; especially with our new fancy label of being ‘essential’. The research backs us up and the families we work with back us up. But, this fight to be viewed as professionals is, in some ways, a double-edged sword. Yes, we have much knowledge about how our youngest citizens learn. Yes, we teach (even when it looks like play). Yes, we plan lessons, we plan activities, we do ‘yard duty’, have endless staff meetings and attend professional development.
We are teachers. But we must reflect on the knowledge which we’re holding closely to our chests—knowledge which turns heads, which makes our friends say ‘so you just play with kids all day then?’, and makes people raise their eyebrows or roll their eyes. Our children, your children, young children, learn through play. They learn through experiencing things, through investigating things, through feeling things. This is at the very core of our practice in early childhood—and yes, that still makes us teachers and educators.
Here is the problem, as I see it: COVID-19 is encouraging a push to online learning, even in our sector. In some ways, this proves a simple recognition of the importance of our role an acknowledgement; a subtle nod in our direction that what we’re doing is important to both the children we educate and care for, and the communities that we reflect and are a member of. We’re being recognised, perhaps loosely, alongside schools as a place for children’s learning and development; this rarely happens! One way or another, we are being acknowledged not only as a staple of the economy, but as providing a service to children which is so essential that it must continue, even when families are isolating in their homes and cannot attend our services. This, for me, is complicated. I feel it is both a privilege and a huge step towards the recognition we want and deserve. But here’s the catch: teaching remotely won’t be largely beneficial for young children. It can’t be. We can offer a prescriptive, inauthentic curriculum with videos of us reading stories. We can show videos of educators dancing, sharing happiness and joy; we can paint rainbows on our fences and encourage families to do the same but nothing we do remotely will substitute for the pure physicality and intentionality of what we do each day. We can’t observe a child using tongs and note that their fine motor skills need developing; we can’t see their authentic and deep interest in bugs in the garden bed; we can’t theorise together, experiment together, laugh together, hug together or make funny faces at each other from across the classroom. Video chats and emails can only do so much in lieu of the pure physicality that is early childhood; it’s about relationships and it’s all about play.
As a sector, maybe it’s time to adjust our ever-so-tight grip on this most central knowledge. Maybe it’s time we take a step back, and let our families know that over the coming weeks and months, it’s okay to get let their children be. Now, more than ever, it is important to emphasise the importance of what we do by sharing our knowledge, rather than sharing videos or activity ideas. This way families and children can develop their own authentic, rich learning experiences. Let’s take this opportunity to let parents know the value of play. We can equip them with our knowledge—that play, without adult-intervention, builds resilience, problem-solving skills, motor skills, imagination, self-expression, and everything else.
Instead of planning curricula for children who we can’t touch, hug, whose tears or noses we can’t wipe, let’s find ways to share knowledge about play so that parents, caregivers and teachers can together expand their understanding of play and learning. The sharing of this knowledge might help families to better understand the work we do, why we do it, and what ‘early education’ really means.
I’ll be writing an email to my families this week, outlining the different types of play, the differing stages of play, and the skills which are developed through each type. I’m going to suggest that they follow their child’s lead—to simply see where that takes them, and to go from there. I’ll be there, on the other end of the phone if they need support, but, most importantly I’m going to tell them that their children are in the best place they could be at the moment; at home with the people who love them the most.