Play in the Time of Corona: The Evolution of a Classroom Community

By Mark Mabry, Head Teacher 

As Bing reopened in the fall of 2020, after the school was shut down for almost half a year due to COVID-19, our Center PM teachers were grateful to be back in the classroom but understandably apprehensive. We knew we would be facing challenges in navigating all the necessary safety restrictions while also providing an environment that honored the children’s need for play and social experiences.

Many of the practices we had cherished as an integral part of our classroom experience would have to change. Parents would no longer be allowed to join their children in the classroom and chat informally with teachers. Children and teachers would be masked and unable to see each other’s full faces and expressions. And goodbyes would have to be said at the entrance of the school rather than in the classroom, which meant parents and children could not separate gradually. How would children react to this new way of being at school, and how would we be able to continue to foster a connected community of children and parents?

Because we were required by state licensing to limit our enrollment, most of the children coming to Center PM were returnees from the previous, abbreviated year, so they were already familiar with our classroom. This turned out to be quite helpful in making the transition to the new way of saying goodbye to parents. The children were so excited to finally be able to come back to school, reconnect with friends and experience the joy of returning to an environment built for them that they were eager to give a big hug to their caregivers and then run, skip, hop, dance or promenade their way into the classroom. In fact, many of them expressed pride in being able to make the walk to the room by themselves. More than a few parents observed that although they missed accompanying their child into the classroom, saying goodbye felt a lot easier when it was clear that children wanted to demonstrate that sense of independence. For the children and families new to Center PM, being able to watch the others happily and excitedly march off to the room made their own separations much easier. 

children playing with sand

Once in the classroom, most of the children immediately headed outside to the spacious yard, challenging themselves on climbers, digging in the sand, exploring water activities or rolling down the grassy hills. The pleasure of being able to freely roam and play in an outdoor space again with friends was palpable. When we shared photos with parents of their children enjoying these out-of-doors experiences, many were touched by seeing their children in a play space that wasn’t marked with caution tape or closed signs—as most playgrounds had been during the shutdown. They were able to revel in an inviting, natural environment and share their experiences with old and new friends.

While teachers maintained a safe distance from each other, children had no such restrictions and could freely interact with both teachers and their peers. Last fall, health and safety guidelines strongly recommended that nursery school-aged children wear masks in school settings. That recommendation later evolved into a mandate. Bing teachers created a short digital picture book, My Day at Bing (with photos also by staff), to help families prepare their children for new protocols before the reopening. We wondered how the children would cope with having their faces covered, but the vast majority came to school masked and had little resistance to wearing them. Even the few children who did not initially wear masks asked their parents for them to feel more like a part of the community. Children are quite competent and self-motivated when given authentic information, and many talked matter-of-factly about needing to be safe from germs. 

Children playing outdoor marimba

Masks posed another challenge for children, as reading each other’s facial expressions can be very important in their social interactions. We tried to ameliorate this by providing each child with a nametag that also featured an unmasked photo of their face. We also used these photos to create an online gallery so our families could explore the faces together at home. While these efforts certainly helped, we began to realize that the children became quite skilled in recognizing each other’s intents and emotions through body language, tone of voice and the expressiveness of their eyes. Children are intrinsically driven to find ways to connect with each other.

In addition to our faces projects, we realized that we would need to be more innovative in sharing children’s school experiences with parents, since they were no longer able to glimpse classroom moments in person. Center PM has a private classroom blog, and we redoubled our efforts to share more vignettes and stories with families. But we also knew that parents would appreciate more specific information about their own child’s classroom experience. We created an online portal, where every family had access to a collection of photos, videos and anecdotes. This became a window into their child’s life at school. In a normal year, teachers would meet with parents for conferences in both the fall and the spring. In this anything-but-normal year, we also offered a mid-year check-in meeting, which was met with enthusiasm. 

Just as children were eager to come back to school and forge a new kind of community in Center PM, their parents were equally invested in reaching out to each other in navigating “COVID parenting” together. They emailed and phoned each other to share experiences and ideas. They attended the school’s online Zoom coffee talks on topics of interest to parents. With their children, they attended online sessions with our music and movement specialist, Mara Beckerman. And they created safe outdoor play dates outside of school with small groups based on our classroom snack groups, where children could play together, masked, as they did in the classroom while the adults physically distanced. Those efforts brought everyone together as a tightly knit community in a time when we all needed it most. 

It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge children, parents and caregivers, who endeavored to make this year work on so many levels, despite so many obstacles. As teachers, we remain so grateful for their efforts and for the support and acknowledgement of ours.

What we found in all these potential COVID clouds were many silver linings we had not anticipated. We rediscovered how competent and resilient children are and how enthusiastic they are about coming to a place that is meant for them—where they can explore, play and engage with each other. We experienced the support, understanding and gratitude of a group of parents that were not only eager to partner with us but were also determined to create a strong, connected community outside of the classroom.