The Power of Play at Home
March – May 2020

Families and Identity were recurring themes during our first semester with our 2s/ 3s class. As is tradition, the children created books about themselves as part of the transition process into the classroom. These were used by the teachers to help the group learn more about their classmates. In the early weeks of 2020, our 2s/3s class began enacting animal families during their Work Time in the classroom and during play on rooftop playground. This play was heavily informed by their work around family structures and an interest in animal life. 

The teachers had planned to jump into a new Inquiry Cycle about animal social structures after spring break. However, like all schools in New York City, we had to close our doors for in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers swiftly adjusted the curriculum to a virtual model. Many questions arose in the early days of planning for virtual learning. What would Playful Inquiry look like in the virtual world? How can teachers set up opportunities for social-emotional development through Zoom? What is Zoom?

As students began logging in, the teachers quickly discovered the beautiful community that existed in the classroom had not disappeared. The children were still enthusiastic learners and cared deeply for each other. The teachers also realized they had been presented with new teaching partners: Parents! Educators study for years to learn how to scaffold curriculum effectively. They are skilled at pivoting lessons to meet the needs of the students in the room. In this world, they had to change curriculum planning to include parental teaching support. Parents had to step into the teacher’s role in supporting play. With the student’s daily lessons, teachers included the educational objectives of the activities, scripting guided questions for parents to ask during these activities, and supplemental areas of exploration to delve into as a family.

Each week, the students took a virtual journey through a different ecosystem on our planet. The curriculum encouraged students to learn about the flora and fauna one would find in these vastly different environments. The class would then spend time diving into the life of one biological member of the community. They answered a myriad of questions: Where in the environment does the animal inhabit? What do they eat? What is the community structure? How long do they care for their young? The class created bear dens, the ocean floor, ant colonies, and the vast arctic tundra. They used supplies found around their homes. Sugar became snow, pillows became rock, and their living rooms became their classrooms.

The Animal Inquiry Cycle also allowed teachers to address needs specific to their students and areas of growth that presented themselves. They found that students worked best when they had a specified space to “work-in.” This proved challenging as many students were staying in summer homes or with relatives to escape the COVID epidemic devastating NYC. The teachers used the nomadic nature of gorillas to encourage students to “make your nest wherever you are.” Children were proud to support their adults in the creation of desks for computers and shelves for art supplies. Some children even took the nest visual to the next level, using pillows and stuffed animals to join in the fun of school at home. Other children even created their very own “cubby” with a photo of them inside just like our classroom at school.

The teachers wanted to find a meaningful way to close out the year with their students that celebrated their work. It was also essential for the students to have an opportunity to say goodbye to their friends. This presented a new set of challenges; saying goodbye in a virtual world is very different than a hug at the end of school year. As we know, transitions can be challenging for our very youngest of learners. That is why consistency and setting up children for success through practice are the keys to a strong early childhood program.   

As a culminating event, the students created a unique environment: The island of Landor. Students could choose to bring their favorite animal, a mythical animal that has already been created, an animal we had studied over the semester, or an animal of their creation to Landor. “Calicorns” (a cat and unicorn hybrid) lived among the unicorns, dogs, wolves, and horses. By the end of the week, the class would have to say goodbye to their animal, as they had to leave Landor. The students had time to practice saying goodbye to their friends that they cared for deeply. They wrote songs, made cards, and planned to return to Landor someday. This was not goodbye; it was ” see you soon.”

These skills transferred to our final week when we celebrated our community through songs, dance parties, art pieces, and moments of gratitude.  The journey through the 2019-2020 school year was epic. Keeping Playful Inquiry at the heart of our work helped everyone grow — the teachers, the parents, and, most importantly, our children!