Students at the American International School of Bucharest developing non-fiction writing in the construction area. (Published with permission from the American International School of Bucharest)
Over the last 18 months children around the world have faced restrictions on social interactions and movement due to school closures, social distancing, and covid safety measures. Many children have been limited in their access to early childhood facilities, outdoor activities, and playdates with friends. This has impacted young children in their development of gross motor, self-regulation, and cooperation skills. As found in the recent Save the Child global survey, “Although many countries have developed distance learning alternatives to support children’s learning at home, more than 60% of national distance learning alternatives that have been implemented rely on online platforms” (Edwards,2020). As we know, many young learners struggled to connect with this model of education, many being too young to fully engage in class sessions, missing out on opportunities that were available for social interaction and cognitive development.
These restrictions are likely to have a lasting impact on early childhood and first grade classrooms for the next several years. Research is beginning to suggest that babies, toddlers, and preschoolers missing out on regular interactions with their peers may have impacted areas of development such as relationship building, communication, independence, and gross motor skills. While Covid restrictions have also brought about extended time with key family members which for many children have strengthened these caregiver bonds, schools still need to be aware of the need to extend these relationships beyond the key family members.
For many years, first grade teachers have felt the pull between providing what we know to be developmentally appropriate, responsive ways to learn and the formalities of elementary education and curriculum. We wanted to provide time for children to engage in the free play that brings with it so much richness to their development. We had to cut this time to make space for reading, writing, math, and other academia. While there is no getting away from the fact that these subject areas are important and do need to be thoughtfully provided for in the first-grade classroom, many schools seem to have lost sight of the need to build social and emotional skills as well as experiences for children to connect to when they are learning to comprehend or understand an abstract mathematical concept. What better way to do this than through play? “The suggested mechanisms through which play contributes include: the formation of neural structures necessary for future activities ...; practice of skills such as language, motor, and social-negotiation skills ...; and serving as an important medium for childhood expression of emotion” (Eaton et al. 2001 cited in Physical activity for preschool children — how much and how? 2007).
Covid has allowed us to throw away the rule book. There is no playlist for how to support children through these times. We are working it out as we go. All we have to go by is what we know works for children when they need to build relationships, explore the world around them, and take risks that will allow for skills to develop. Play! Throughout the animal kingdom, play is used as a tool to allow young animals to learn how to navigate the world around them. What better way then is there to help children navigate these unusual times.
Sensory play, for example, can allow children to learn mindfulness, giving them the power to harness calmness when the world around them feels out of balance. I have seen children respond extremely well to sensory corners in the classroom, where they are encouraged to visit if they are feeling overwhelmed or needing to refocus. It has often been the turning point for students that has allowed them to handle group conflicts, carpet time, and transitions with greater success. Water trays, sand pits, and playdough are easy options that can be used to build not just emotional balance but communication between peers too. Math concepts can be explored while children play with the different tools and fine motor skills can be developed by giving children clay tools to work with. Children have had a noticeably reduced time to build skills such as handwriting, cutting, and other fine motor skills. Giving children different hardness of playdough, clay, and plasticine can help to build strength and mobility in their hands, wrist, and elbow pivots. “As children grow, it is imperative they are given opportunities to learn through tactile (hands-on), visual, auditory, olfactory (sense of smell) and taste stimuli, as it is through this reciprocal relationship between sensory input and thinking that children gain their power (new knowledge and skills)” (The Underestimated Value of Sensory Play in Early Childhood Education Peden, 2021).
Outdoor activities such as climbing, running, balancing, obstacle courses, football, and other team sports can again help in a variety of ways. “Research shows that the development of fine motor skills depends on the development of gross motor skills and that a joined-up approach to physical development is important” (gov.uk). From building the core strength necessary for fine motor to develop, to team engagement with one another, students need to have extended times to engage in these activities. Collaboration, communication, cooperation, and compromising are all vital skills needed in the classroom setting right through to adulthood. These can be learned naturally in a sporting environment.
Role play and small world can help children explore situations they have found themselves in, exploring their feelings and ways to respond as they work through what has been for some, a traumatic experience. Roleplay and small world activities also allow students the opportunity to develop an understanding of story, build language skills necessary for the telling of these stories, and allows them to engage in favorite stories in a deeper and more meaningful way, enabling them to better comprehend when they read independently. Mark making, measurement, counting, and other academic skills can also be easily supported through these activities too.
Construction areas are another great way to engage students in mark making, mathematical skills, and language development. Students working together have to learn to communicate their ideas with one another, compromise on the plan, and resolve conflict when it occurs. As stated in Ten Things Children Learn From Block Play (Koralek, 2015) one of the greatest benefits from block play is “Social and emotional growth. Blocks help children learn to take turns and share materials, develop new friendships, become self-reliant, increase attention span, cooperate with others, and develop self-esteem - Kathleen Harris.”
Another benefit is the reduction of stress and the ability to take greater risks. In my own classroom this year, I had a group of EAL beginner students struggling to engage in the nonfiction writing unit. During a play session they had created a zoo out of the wooden blocks. We began to explore the signs you see on the sides of animal cages that explain a little about each animal. Each student took great joy in creating their own fact filled sign for their part of the zoo. By the end of the session, they accomplished the same outcome that had been asked of them in a writer’s workshop, without any of the anxiety present when they were asked to write on the writing sheets provided in the workshop lesson.
The tension we all feel in first grade though is how do we fit it all in? In response to the pandemic, we have already had to look through our curriculum and work out what is vital to keep, nice to know, and not important. Keeping this in mind as we move from responding to distance learning and hybrid restrictions will be vital in ensuring that we keep a balance for the children in our care. The effects of social distancing and lockdowns are not going to go away overnight. We need to be mindful of this in the years to come, building programs that have play at the heart of them. When we look at the skills students are able to develop through play, we begin to see the opportunities for using this as a basis for building academia onto. It isn’t one or the other, but rather how one can support the other.
Sarah is the First Grade Learning Leader at the American International School of Bucharest.
AISB Bucharest @AISBucharest