By Nishi Shridhar
As an early childhood educator, I have been thinking a lot about the altered realities of school life, and its meaning for the four-year-olds with whom I interacted in a classroom setting this past year. How is today’s learning different from before? What does a classroom mean to a four-year-old in current times? How has their childhood experiences changed as a result of this pandemic? I suggest here that children have agency and their childhoods have drastically altered as a result of the change to their physical and daily environment. I think that, at this time, we need to have a child-centered perspective towards understanding what is lost in terms of learning for toddlers when they can no longer have physical and social interactions beyond their immediate family members because of the fear of a coronavirus infection.
When a young child first enters school, a space that is foreign to them, he/she goes through several experiences. The most apparent experience or the struggle for children is to accept school as a familiar environment for meeting peers and the class teacher. Apart from that, they also face separation anxiety from their parents, which is a very huge moment in their life-worlds. I witness children crying and not wanting to leave their parents’ hands to come to class. But once they adjust after the first few days, they leave their classes at the end of the day with a similar remorse of not being able to now play with their classmates for the rest of the day. In the current scenario, all of these experiences have been replaced by virtual interaction. Young children are witnessing a changing learning environment. These are alternate childhood experiences.
The interactions between a teacher and a child that takes place in a physical classroom allow them to learn about and build a social relationship. Children look forward to each day because they get to narrate their incidents/adventures from the previous day with the teacher as well as their classmates. Such interactions have proved to make the children more expressive and empathetic humans and supportive towards their friends. I have also experienced that talking to a child with speech delays or stammer on a regular basis improves their language development. Research suggests that one-on-one teacher-child interactions, making eye contact with the toddler and attentively listening to them promotes a secure teacher-child relationship for the young ones. This proves to be true even in real-life experiences as simple acts like just listening to them talk about themselves, pleasant morning greetings and individual eye contact, I have seen, make young children confident and begin to develop emotions of trust with their teachers with whom many share personal musings as well. Contrary to a physical classroom, online classroom settings might not be able to offer these opportunities. A toddler will not be able to have personal time with their teachers to talk to them as they cannot log online independently. Also, an online class comes with constraints of physical engagement wherein children are not able to feel the warmth of their teachers or peers. How can one expect young children to connect with a two-dimensional image of their teacher and learn to form social relations with other adults in their world as these early grade students are also still developing various faculties? While this can be generative in young people having new and innovative familiarities with technologies, denial of the damage possible to their growing bodies and specifically, their eyes because of extended screen exposure, is also unwise.
Other than the teacher-child classroom interaction, there is another crucial element that is unique to only a physical classroom setting. It is the structure and infrastructure of the classroom. In my classroom, we had a number of things like a black/whiteboard, a few storybooks lying around, colourful walls with drawings and paintings on a bulletin board, and many more colourful and interactive elements. Presence of these different elements and seeing their own work on the display board of the classroom walls impacts children’s mood, behavior, and provides them with a sense of encouragement. Such classroom aesthetics is a contributing factor to the teaching and learning experiences of a child. A UK based study asserts “physical and spatial aspects of a learning environment communicate a symbolic message about what is expected to happen in a particular place”. This means that the physical setting of a classroom covertly or overtly communicates to the children of what to expect in a classroom, and thereby, enhances their learning. Not all children will have access to such materials essential for their growth and development at their homes. This will result in more marginalization of some children versus others.
Friendships are also extremely valuable for young children in how they make sense of their worlds. School children, even the young ones eagerly wait to meet their peers at school. They meet, talk, and play together. From the journey of being strangers on the first day of school to getting along well, children develop a lot of relationship bonding skills. From personal experiences, children learn various life-skills such as, socialising, problem-solving, sharing, and so forth through peer interaction.
Now, in a situation like today, children only need to sit in front of a system that will enable them to attend a virtual class. The physical setting at home is starkly different from the classroom. Online, children are able to see their classmates and the teacher in small grids, not as loving and caring humans whom they can touch and embrace. The roles of teacher and friends have been replaced by the parents. Of all those lost peer group interactions, children might now want their parents to compensate for it. This adds a further burden on parents at this time. The online learning process may work in favour of those who enjoy lesser socialising and more alone time, but this may be a site of privilege to reflect upon. In most cases, it will overwhelm young people who especially like playing outdoors and spending time at school and with friends, rather than their homes.
Hence, what we will witness in a post COVID-19 environment may be a re-imagining of research agendas for early childhood education. Does it not become important to understand how does this changing physical daily environment of toddlers affect their learning, their relationships with teachers and classmates? How will social skills need to be taught to the young in these altered times? Will there be an altered childhood that remains vacuous of physical and social bonds and connections? These are some questions that I am left with as I continue to reflect on how and what is to be taught to early grade children in these times.
Nishi Shridhar has experience in teaching and engaging with young children within a school setting. She holds a postgraduate degree in Education specializing in early childhood education from Ambedkar University Delhi. Her research interests include topics related to childhood studies, representation of children in children’s picture and storybooks and other interconnected themes.