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Virtual learning for early childhood students

New York Teacher
Sandra Fajgier

PS 280 prekindergarten teacher Sandra Fajgier — and her daughter, Sabrina Bella Kamins — are dealing with the challenges of remote learning.

Early childhood educators face a unique challenge with remote learning. In our classrooms, learning occurs through hands-on experiences guided by an intentional facilitator. How can we recreate this virtually?

I’ve come to the conclusion there is no program or platform that can recreate the magic of collaborative learning that our youngest students need. I have also learned no computer program will provide the self-directed remote experience which families and caregivers are looking for. 

So what now? How can we provide families with the skills, confidence and resources needed to implement an at-home, hands-on learning experience?

We know communication facilitates collaboration. My school has put together a survey to get to know our incoming families. We ask how COVID-19 has affected their lives, if anyone in their immediate family is a first responder, if our students have siblings and about their technology/device needs, their prior experience with remote instruction and their schedules/availability.

Our first step is to develop Google Classroom and virtual meeting norms at the beginning of the school year by engaging our parents and families. We set them up for success by providing tutorials about how they can post and comment, how to change their email notification settings and what to do if they need technical support. Teachers can also provide a weekly meeting schedule (with start and end times for each meeting) and links for all materials needed. This allows families to preview the text and important vocabulary words for a read-aloud before it takes place, for instance.

Small details that actually have a huge impact on virtual meetings are bathroom breaks and snacks. Just as they do in school, hungry tummies and constant bathroom breaks can be disruptive. Teachers can ask families to support their children’s success during Zoom meetings by taking care of these things beforehand.

But our previous experiences with remote learning have shown us that relying on live instruction will not be enough. From a developmental perspective, our virtual class meetings at the beginning of the school year should not exceed 15 to 20 minutes. We need to think about how live instruction can be “chunked” so it is accessible to students and their families; we all know the presence of parents and caregivers has an impact on engagement for this age group.

At my school, teachers worked to create a true virtual community. We offered Zoom meetings with various groupings of students to make the meetings accessible to children with “Zoom resistance.” Some teachers hosted teacher play dates and encouraged parents to reach out to other parents to set up virtual play dates. 

We used a Google Docs sign-up sheet so families could choose when their child would interact with a teacher for choice time and snack time. During choice time, teachers are interacting with small groups of up to six students for conversation and play. During snack time, teachers talk and eat snacks with the children virtually. 

While it is impossible to recreate the classroom, these are some ways for early childhood teachers to create an engaging online learning community for students and their families. 

Sandra Fajgier is a prekindergarten teacher at PS 280 in Brooklyn.