Playful Learning: Covid's Impact on Early Years

Schools across the UAE have been back in action for almost a full half term and, we’re glad to report, the feedback from students, parents and teachers has, in the main, been incredibly positive as to how education is being delivered around the current Covid-19 safety restrictions. But what of those very young students, those in the 3-6 age group? In this special feature, we find out how schools have adapted play based, child-led leaning to ensure Covid safe environments for our little ones.
Playful Learning: Covid's Impact on Early Years
By Jenny Mollon
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Most parents will know by now that young child learn best in a play-based curriculum. A year ago, had you have visited a UAE school foundation stage or kindergarten department, you would most likely have seen children selecting their own activities, collaborating (or not, as the case may be!) , mingling with other children and their teachers embedding more academic learning into the play, passions and individual interests of their class.

With the Covid-19 limitations on distancing, the creation of small class ‘bubbles’ and restrictions in place on the sharing of resources, books and toys, how have Early Years and Kindergarten teachers adapted their classroom practice to still promote the social and emotional, physical, language and academic development of young children? We spoke to three innovative Dubai schools; Horizon English School, Dunecrest American School and Victory Heights Primary School to see what life in their early years departments looks like today.

Hannah Howard, Head of Foundation Stage at Horizon English School (HES) was well prepared for our conversation. “We are constantly looking at ways we can adapt and be more innovative.”

A Horizon English School student, hard at play. Safety plexi-glass visible behind her

To prove the point, Ms Howard went on to explain how things have changed inside HES Foundation Stage classrooms;

What has worked really well is using what we call ‘challenge trays’. Inside these trays are what we would usually have in a shared area of the classroom. They are full of open-ended activities, things you can manipulate… Really, everything we can add that will inspire those open ended, child led discussions.

Having these individual trays has meant we’ve still been able to deliver sensory experiences. Our children still have their own paints, their own play-doh. What’s more, in the hot months, we brought our bikes and trikes inside and created a cycle track in the indoor shared area. Some of our classrooms even condensed water play into trays. The children just go wild for that!

“If you could look inside our Foundation Stage classrooms, you would see that we still have the three ‘big hits’ in terms of what our children want and love to do. We have role play, investigation and construction areas, but now we have visual reminders as to how far apart children should be and how many children are allowed in each area. Our classroom bubbles are separated by plexi-glass which keeps the rooms feeling bright, the children connected and yet apart from each other. We have bubble stickers on table tops and sometimes under chairs. These reminders enable children to be independent and yet safe at the same time.

What is amazing is how well and how quickly the children adapted to this. They remind and help each other and wave so they are still collaborating, just in a different way!”

As much has Covid-19 has affected the school's youngest pupils, it has affected how teachers set up their lessons, and execute them, as much, if not more. Ms Howard is proud, however, of how well her team have adapted.

“I’ll admit, for passionate early years practitioners, some of these changes and restrictions did make us a little sad at the start. But now, having a full half term under our belts, we have found things are working well, and there are even some things we will keep when things return to normal.

"For example, as well as our challenge trays, we have ‘challenge chairs’ which are ready for when the children arrive first thing in the morning. These work well as HES has a rolling morning drop off to ensure social distancing. They mean that the children have something ready to go the moment they walk into the room.

They might have activities that consolidate what we have learnt in the week, sometimes individual pots of play doh…it can be almost anything. What has been great is that this has been a really easy way for us to see how well they have learnt and are now applying new skills”.

At Dunecrest American School, we met Crystal Hanna, Early Childhood Principal and Kindergarten teachers Elizabeth Boyd and Ella Cassidy-Clark. The team told us that there have been two key fundamentals to the success of the first few weeks of term in the school’s Kindergarten. First of all, Dunecrest itself is blessed with considerable space, so each class group has been able to have two adjacent classrooms, with one bubble per room and one washroom per bubble.

This, plus its well trained and very experienced team of Assistant Teachers (termed Instructional Assistants at Dunecrest) have meant that the splitting of classes in to bubbles has proved a relatively simple exercise. Teachers and Assistants rotate between the groups, while the bubbles remain together.

Dunecrest children call these green mats 'islands', each child has their own island to ensure social distancing

Dunecrest teachers have sought to promote the social and emotional wellbeing wherever possible. Knowing that joining a new class can be intimidating for any young child (even prior to the Covid restrictions) the team began engaging with children on Zoom well before the start of term. In doing so, the children got to know the team without masks. As teacher Elizabeth Boyd said,

“We were able to say to pupils, this is us without the mask, but you will see us with masks like people wear in the Malls. We had some really lovely sessions with the new children, from as early as May. We’d run get togethers with themes such as ‘bring your favourite stuffed animal’. It meant that when they arrived in class, the connections and relationships were well underway”.

In class, children have their own ‘tool box’ of resources and toys to avoid cross contamination. Keen to still encourage the concept of sharing, the team now promote ‘wait your turn’ as an alternative to ‘share with your friends’.

“We’ve taught pupils that waiting their turn is part and parcel of sharing” said Ms Cassidy-Clark. “Our children understand that before another child can use a toy or resource, it must be sanitised. They now know that passing an item into the ‘clean box’ gives another child the chance to use it. This is a small but important point when it comes to caring about and cooperating with their friends”.

At Dunecrest American School, children are learning socially distant ways in which to greet their friends

At British curriculum Victory Heights Primary School (VHPS), early years classes typically have 25 children per class, meaning that each group now has three, socially distant, bubbles. The team has come up with an innovative way of keeping things fresh and exciting for their young pupils. Sasha Heathcock, Head of Foundation Stage 2 explains;

“We have three areas in each classroom. Each bubble of pupils moves through these on a six-day rotation system. The children spend two days in each area, exploring and learning, then move on to something new. We create new challenges and activities every two days, so our children continue to experience a great variety of things to do and skills to learn. For our very young children in FS1, they have stayed in the same place for this half term, to make sure they feel safe and comfortable, but from after the break they will be moving too.

Socially distant outdoor play at Victory Height Primary School!

“Whatever activity our children are doing, we as a team we have placed huge emphasis on physical development. We have noticed the impact of the lockdown on some children’s gross and fine motor skills. Our children use our outdoor play areas as often as the temperatures allow, plus we take walks around the school grounds and encourage children to use the stairs. Every bit of movement helps!”

At the beginning of this new term, the Foundation Stage teachers at VHPS agreed that strong connections with parents would be important for the children to feel settled and happy at school. The school uses the popular Seesaw app and have allowed parents to post messages photos of the children at home, creating a constant flow of updates between home and classroom.

Improving fine motor skills is high on the agenda at VHPS

The social and emotional development of the children is clearly on the mind of the team, and after the half term break the bubbles will be mixed to allow new friendships to flourish.

As Ms Heathcock says, “I worry about their friendships, and want to make sure they get to know everyone in the class. We want all our children to progress through the school with a broad mix of friends, so after the holiday there will be a few small changes”.

For Head of Foundation stage, Hannah Hepworth, creating a rock-solid routine and gentle boundaries has been a fundamental for both year groups.

“Children feel safe within a routine and children can succeed within a routine. We have expectations for them, rules and clear boundaries. Whatever changes or innovations we have had to make, we’ve built them into a routine. That’s just key to good Early Years practice whatever is going on in the world around us.

"Our children are thriving back at school. It is simply the best place for them to be”.

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