Before the pandemic snarled daily routines around the world, Aria Jones’ 3- and 4-year-old students had a reliable schedule down pat in their Washington, D.C., preschool. They’d have breakfast at 8 a.m., come together for a morning meeting and then spend an hour in the library or doing dramatic play before nap time and a hard stop at 3 p.m. It was a pretty structured day.
Since March, things have been different as her school moved to a completely virtual model. She typically starts her day around 8:30 a.m. with a series of short one-on-one academic lessons, just 15 minutes each, giving her time to connect with each family. Then the whole class comes together for a 20-minute morning meeting where they might talk about patterns, simple math concepts or how the kids are feeling. Later there might be a story read aloud or a group activity mixing paints to make new colors before Jones dives into another round of one-on-ones. When they’re not on screen, students are asked to work independently with their caregivers on suggested activities—a game of kickball, maybe, to develop motor skills or an art project.
It’s a long day for teachers like Jones, working to schedule time with each student. But it’s an effective way to keep school engaging for young learners, and screen time light. “Each student might only be getting an hour’s worth of screen time,” says Jones, who teaches at AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in the southeast corner of D.C. “I don’t think that’s a lot in a day to be in school, but the learning is truly there.”
As virus cases surge, and schools yo-yo between in-person and remote models, educators like Jones, along with other experts in the field, are confronting a perplexing dilemma: Can a quality preschool education be conducted online when overwhelming evidence suggests that face-to-face learning is the best option for this age group?
“For many of us in the field, when we hear ‘online’ and ‘preschool’ used together, we think it’s an oxymoron,” says Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, an early childhood expert and psychology professor who directs the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia. But the constraints of the pandemic present a new set of considerations—namely the safety of educators and families, some of whom are not yet ready to consider in-person schooling. “Is getting something better than getting nothing? Probably so. Should it just be what we did when we were offline, now moving it online? Probably not.”
Limiting screen time whenever possible, as Jones does, is a good first step. But even the American Academy of Pediatrics, which publishes screen time recommendations for children, has acknowledged that media use is likely to increase during the pandemic. For preschoolers, too much screen time can impact language and brain development and has been linked to obesity and sleep disorders, even in very young children.
There is also the issue of how long a preschooler can stay focused on any given lesson or activity, especially on a screen. Attention spans vary by age and temperament, of course, but generally they’re no longer than 15 minutes for older preschoolers, and even shorter for younger ones. “That’s not unlike what many TV producers already know when they write television for this age group,” Hirsch-Pasek says. “You’ll notice they do it in 15-minute segments.”
Learning and Video
Not all screen time is equal. When it comes to learning, there is a big difference between attending a class on Zoom, watching a segment on Sesame Street and playing video games that provide limited educational value. The challenge for educators is how to structure the limited amounts of screen time they do get with young students to maximize learning.
In research conducted in Hirsch-Pasek’s lab, preschoolers who read an ebook with parents understood more than other children who read alone or listened to an audio narration, suggesting that students learn more from trusted adults who can help contextualize material. “There’s an emotional bond,” Hirsch-Pasek says. “Parents allow you to go beyond the covers of the book.”
Naturally, one challenge for remote educators is replicating these strong emotional bonds when they may have never even met their students in person.
The good news is that research has shown that preschoolers can learn effectively from video chat over platforms like Zoom, according to Rachel Barr, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and director of the Georgetown Early Learning Project. “I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but there is a lot in video chat that children can gain from,” she says.
A recent research brief co-authored by Barr for the early-childhood nonprofit Zero to Three cites a trove of studies showing that video chat with adults helps toddlers learn to imitate new actions, locate objects in the real world and learn new vocabulary. In one study, children as young as 17 months recognized a researcher they had only met over video chat and remembered more of what they’d learned than kids who watched pre-recorded videos of the same researcher teaching the same skills—implying that the back-and-forth connection of video chat can foster the emotional bonds necessary for meaningful learning to take place.
All that’s to say, for young students, having the camera on during online preschool can make a big difference. “If I was to talk to a 5-year-old on the phone, it would be totally incomprehensible to them,” explains Barr. “But video tech gives them a lot more information. You’ve got the audio, you’ve got the visual, you’ve got the back and forth. That is much more helpful to them in terms of learning.” However, research is less clear about how kids deal with large galleries of faces on screen, which might overload them with sensory information, and Barr suggests focusing the screen on a single person whenever possible with younger kids.
A certain amount of parental involvement is also a must, which may be a challenge for families with working parents and multiple kids, who may not have the luxury of shepherding kids through a full day of preschool. In the model Jones’ school uses, family participation is not optional—it’s more of an expectation—although she regularly meets with families to brainstorm accommodations that make sense for them. Caregivers are typically present when she conducts one-on-one lessons and during group time, and are regularly given lists of activities to do on their own. “Because they’re so young, we need the parents and the families to help facilitate learning on their end,” she says.
In general, though, for older preschoolers, caregivers can play more of a supporting role. In addition to giving busy parents a break, it allows kids to build connections with teachers and peers on their own, as they might in a classroom. “It’s very dependent on the child,” explains Barr. “If at all possible, try to let the child have a little bit of time by themselves on Zoom but [also have] the parent be available at the beginning and the end of the class.”
The end is key because while young children do learn from interactions in video chat, they may not always transfer that learning to real-world situations. In physical classrooms that’s less of a problem, as teachers can show students pictures and objects to facilitate those connections. But in the online world, it often requires an extra step. If they’re learning about how leaves change colors, teachers might display a variety of leaves on screen and crunch them with their fingers before asking parents to take their kids outside and find leaves of their own to bring back.
“That is crucial for kids at least through age 5, because that translation between the screen and the real world is hard,” says Barr, adding that such examples are typical of how remote preschool must be approached in creative ways that sets it apart from in-person learning. “You’re going to solve this problem differently. You need to keep connecting the dots.”
One key to successful remote learning for this age group is variety, says Hirsch-Pasek. Games like telephone, which focus on communication skills, can be adapted for the online environment, as can interactive games that help children collaborate to create stories, sing songs or solve meaningful problems, like retrieving a ball that’s fallen under the couch. Breaking the day up with aerobics, physical activity and brain breaks can also prove helpful.
Many of those ideas are actually ones Hirsch-Pasek has used when interacting with her young grandchildren over Zoom, and they represent core strategies for keeping engagement high during calls. “I always ask about everything I’m doing: Is it active or passive?” she says. “Is it engaging or distracting? Is it meaningful or not? Is it something that is socially interactive or is it alone time?”
Overall, the skills and strategies that preschool teachers already have in their arsenal will still prove enormously helpful even as the medium of instruction changes. The main takeaway might be that students can learn a surprising amount remotely, given the right conditions of technology and family involvement, which are admittedly challenging. For her part, Jones says she has every faith that her students will be ready for kindergarten next fall.
“I do hope that they get the full experience of coming into school,” she says. But of remote learning, she adds, “I feel like it can only get better as we continue to change. And the kids, they just adapt, they’re flexible. That’s just how kids are built.”
Marisa Kaplan contributed research.