The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has created huge gaps in the conventional education system. Despite the emergence of digital and virtual learning software and aids, what is missing, especially for preschool children, is adequate exposure to outdoor activities and socialisation with peers and educators. The question that preschools and parents are grappling with is to what extent the social skills and mental health of children will be affected during this time.
Even if schools open in the near future, how pre-schoolers will deal with social distancing rules, masks, and sanitation protocols is another concern. For now, virtual tutoring seems to be the only way forward despite worries about an emerging digital divide in education.
On the other hand, virtual learning could also make education accessible to underserved demographics with no access to brick and mortar schools. Digital education could also prove to be less expensive than conventional educational modules in the long run. Many experts feel that the pandemic has in fact presented us with a perfect opportunity to redefine the education wheel. However, there are multiple challenges to negotiate with on this new path.
Entrepreneur, educationist, Founder, and the brain behind TreeHouse online preschools, Rajesh Bhatia explains, “From curtailing screen time for young children to transitioning them to virtual learning has been a huge shift. As any pre-school educator will tell you, even in a perfect learning scenario, it is hard to keep kids glued to one activity. To expect them to stay attentive during a virtual class is a Herculean task. To get the attention of three or four-year-olds is one thing but to keep it, is another. That is where an online preschool needs to channel child psychology, and to get kids excited about an experience or an activity.”
Many preschools are following this advice and adjusting to the new normal in innovative ways. Institutions are extensively training teachers and even parents to help young children adjust to virtual learning. Multiple activities are introduced during the virtual class to cater to the child’s physical, emotional and mental development.
As Bhatia says, it is now more important than ever to make the classroom experience as interactive, engaging, and free-flowing as possible because pre-school children can be prone to energy and mood shifts. he says, “A preschool educator must understand that if a child is curious about something or is being entertained, his or her attention span will not waver. That is why kids can watch a cartoon show for hours. The key to engaging them is to get them interested and involved and our teachers sometimes do a bit of play-acting and slip into familiar characters to teach kids about real-life situations and more.”
For a young child, understanding what a pandemic represents may be hard, so easy-to-follow skits about COVID-appropriate behaviours are also seeping into preschool curricula.
Another challenge is to make sure that the fundamentals of pre-school learning like writing, reading, arithmetic skills, and so on are also taught to kids with minimum discomfort. Bhatia says, “In the new normal, parents need to do a lot more hand-holding to help the child through the learning process. Children are of course deprived of a physical and tangible connection with learning but with patience and innovation, we can recreate another kind of learning that wasn't possible before. The digital era has also brought transparency into education. Now parents can actually see the way a curriculum is developed and the way children react to it. ”
Not only are kids adapting to remote learning quickly, but they are also becoming more technologically savvy at a younger age than previous generations. Says Bhatia, “Early childhood is a time of phenomenal brain development, and parents and teachers should make the most of this phase and not waste it. If we turn this challenging time into an opportunity to expose our children to hitherto unexplored avenues of learning in a systematic and balanced way, we will equip them to be future-ready.”
There are skeptics who feel that brick and mortar models offer better social and peer interaction but Bhatia argues that with time, there will be opportunities for children to experience life more organically and in a safe way. Many are doing it even now within safety bubbles created by families and communities. Informal virtual gatherings hosted by preschools also help educators, parents, and kids to bond better, bolster the social and emotional aspects of learning, and add to mutual camaraderie.
Bhatia concludes, “What has not changed in preschool education is the focus on the development of cognitive, social and emotional skills of a child. But whether we like it or not, the digital era is here to stay. Even post the pandemic, it will continue to grow and become an intrinsic part of every aspect of life and not just education. The good news is that our children will be ready to be a part of the inevitable quantum shift."