Remote learning in early childhood: can it work?

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.

ECA Recommends

Sensory play and learning 
by Karen Winderlich

The term ‘sensory learning’ refers to the way in which babies, toddlers and young children use all their senses to gather information as they play. Sensory play and learning are part of all the living and learning experiences in which children involve themselves. The challenge and joy for early childhood professionals is to recognise the endless potential for supporting children’s sensory engagement, and to create spaces for play and learning that are sensory-rich. You can purchase your copy on the ECA Shop here

Children’s imagination: Creativity under our noses 
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Artist and educator Ursula Kolbe opens our eyes and ears to what’s happening ‘under our noses’ when children play—with anything from seedpods to felt-tip pens or even an iPad™. Kolbe’s stories reveal that unstructured and unhurried play—as neuroscientists, psychologists and educators have long said—encourages children to become imaginative and inventive thinkers. You can purchase your copy on the ECA Shop here

Meg Anastasi'
Meg Anastasi is an early childhood educator of seven years’ experience, currently in a long day care centre in Melbourne while working towards her Bachelor Degree in Early Childhood Education.

10 thoughts on “Remote learning in early childhood: can it work?”

    Paula says:

    Very well written, thought provoking articles. Thanks for your insights.

    Tenzin says:

    Salute. Appreciated every thoughts of Meg only to bring real learning experience and the true meaning of early learning educator.

    Julie Sanders says:

    I was delighted to read Meg’s well considered and written article. Meg has critically reflected on her practice, and that of the profession in general, within our current circumstances, and had the courage to challenge everyone to consider whether what is happening is in the best interests of the children who are entrusted into our care to educate and nurture as they “become all they can be”.
    I am proud to say that Meg is one of my students currently studying to be an early childhood teacher. I am confident that if we can continue to see graduates like Meg who are prepared to take seriously their role as an advocate for children, families, colleagues and the profession, we will see a great future in store for early childhood education.
    Keep up the great work Meg!

    Linda Price says:

    Interesting article. This is actually what we have done at our centre, providing a range of videos for parents outlining concepts such as the foundation skills for school readiness (hint it’s NOT reading, writing or maths). We have also done some weekly challenges and yes, there may be a bit of ‘print and colour’ to recreate story props to aid oral literacy, but there is also a significant amount of build a yilam (cubby), obstacle courses and nature based challenges too,

    Our information videos seem to be getting some uptake compared with anything we’ve tried to do before. It’s all based around physical play based learning, we wanted to stick to our philosophy through all this. Interested to hear what others are doing.

    Lee says:

    I have been saying this all along Children will not fall behind as we are all in isolation together Parents should be connected to their children as 1st teachers not relying on us for activities we feel are great when you can’t visibly see the child Phone calls to touch base are there as a familiar voice but you may only receive answers to appease you not the parents actual struggles Let them be children and play outside in their own learning world

    Vicki Gazis says:

    Well written Meg, you have touched on the importance of play and how This level of engagement for a child is so important as they amuse oneself in engagement, imagination and recreation. Very Proud to be your lecturer
    Vicki Gazis

    Anne Gordon says:

    Meg it was a pleasure to read your thought provoking article and your advocacy for play and families.

    Jodie Gewohn says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections, Meg! True advocates for Early Learning are few and far between. It was heart warming to learn you are still studying towards your ECT degree. It seems you have truely found your calling! Keep sharing your thoughtful work.

    Karen Neubrandt says:

    Dear Meg,
    Thank you for having the courage to challenge to the status quo, and for saying what I, and many others, I am sure, have been thinking since the beginning of lockdown. Thank you for your thought provoking reflection, and all the best with your studies. (I aim to complete my ECE degree by the end of this year).
    ngā mihi

    Lisa Knight says:

    Well said Meg! You have captured the essence of how many early childhood educators are feeling and thinking and hopefully this inspires more of us to be writing similar messsages to families this week. As you say, we all know this so let’s share it and allow our young citizens to thrive at home (as we know they will) with a little extra intention and connection from the ones who love them.

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