In August when I learned about all of the COVID restrictions for this upcoming school year, I broke down into tears.
- How are we supposed to keep kindergarten students in their own spaces all day long?
- How do you eliminate hugs from kindergarten?
- How do you enforce social distancing and mask wearing for such young students?
- How do you create and support a play-based atmosphere in a physical space with tables and desks that nowhere resemble a kindergarten classroom?
- How do you reduce the stress in a room that is certain to be in a continual state of dysregulation?
Just thinking about all of these questions became almost more stress than I could handle. Thankfully in the midst of my own epic meltdown, I stumbled upon this wonderful vlog by Susan Hopkins. Now my teaching partner, Paula, and I were faced with a challenge of how we could “scale the condo wall”: figuring out what would be possible within the current restraints.
I think that it was just the challenge that we needed to adjust our own attitudes: to embrace an environment that we fought against only days before.
A few days prior to leaving for April Break — the last time that we were in the classroom teaching together — we looked around the room at the end of the day and we thought, “This might be the calmest classroom that we’ve ever had.” How is this possible? Here’s what we wonder.
Do the separate desk and table spaces have us interacting and connecting more with students on an individual basis, maybe building stronger relationships with each child? We were certainly fortunate this year that our Board used additional funds to reduce class sizes. Our class has ranged from 18-20 students, which is far lower than most years when it hovers around 30 students. With all children being in their own areas, most of our teaching, socializing, and observing happens 1:1. Paula and I know our students extremely well. Maybe more than ever before. We have to wonder if the classroom set-up, coupled with the size, has helped with this. We know from Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins that relationships are key to Self-Reg, and we have to wonder if this is what we’re seeing this year.
Does planning even more with each student in mind also significantly reduce stress? By knowing our children so well, we also know where they’re at socially and academically. We can provide provocations that best align with their needs and interests and move desk spaces to best support peer relationships from a distance.
Do the individual spaces act as mini-micro-environments that children can adapt on their own? Crawling under the desk might provide the darkness and quiet that some children need, while adding paint, blocks, or LEGO, might give the noise and activity that others need. These needs might even vary during times of the day. Instead of moving to these areas around the room, the same space transforms with different materials and different heights: from sitting on a chair to lying under a desk.
Are some social stressors reduced since the socializing happens over time and from a distance? With collaborative spaces being the norm in most kindergarten classrooms, there is a big push to socialize. We definitely try to support and develop social skills at this age. But for students that struggle with social interactions, having a push to socialize everywhere might be really stressful. Now children can slowly enter social play from a distance: maybe moving from parallel play to small conversations to extending the same play over multiple desk/table spaces.
Does this classroom set-up and our relationships with kids also support co-regulation more? Knowing our students also means knowing what up- and down-regulates them. We might not be able to have sensory bins for the whole class to share, but we have many mini-sensory options, from buckets of kinetic sand to play dough and plasticine. Watercolour painting has proved to be really calming for many of our students this year. We also looked at adding additional spaces or modifications to individual ones to better support our students. Just because all students need a space, doesn’t mean that they can only have one. We might not have room for every child to have multiple areas, but not every child needs multiple areas either. Again this comes down to knowing each child, what he/she needs, and what can be brought to an individual space versus what needs to be kept elsewhere. Figuring everything out isn’t easy, but it is possible.
Does the long amount of time that we spend outside — where distancing restrictions have been less than they are inside — help support the social play and the relationships in the classroom environment? With students wearing masks, we don’t have to be as stringent around spacing outside. This allows children to collaborate more, form new friendships, and even collect nature materials (that do not need to be sanitized) for use inside.
Yes, Paula and I are eager for a time when we can …
- have an eating table again,
- have a shared bookshelf where kids can select new books without waiting for them to be quarantined first,
- have a creative table and a building space once more (even if it’s the world’s smallest one),
- have a sensory table or two again (and all of the dramatic play that goes with them),
- have our dream paint room,
- let children move freely around the classroom and not need to worry about distancing anymore,
- and co-create our space with kids without needing to measure a metre plus of distance between each area.
But when this time hopefully comes, maybe we won’t forgo everything that was part of our COVID classroom. Could this past year have us …
- creating a few more individual spaces?
- further supporting independence and private play as much as we do collaborative and social opportunities?
- creating more individual sensory bins instead of always a bigger one?
- reconsidering shelf spaces and table areas even more?
- making some individual LEGO and block bins to accompany collaborative building areas too?
- finding more ways to connect individually with kids instead of largely just connecting with them in a group?
- prioritizing social interactions, Self-Reg, and mental health as much as we do academic skills?
As the school year comes to an end, we probably all know what we’re going to happily say “goodbye” to when COVID restrictions are lifted, but do we also know what we might welcome back for another year?