Young children need less tech, more play during the pandemic

How early educators can best help their students in this uncertain school year.

“If we think we’re going to sit young kids in front of a computer all day to teach them, it’s a mistake. It’s going to hurt children’s development,” explained Dr. Denisha Jones, who, along with Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, both of Defending the Early Years, were guest presenters on our Action Network Live! event for early childhood educators on August 24.

Early childhood is a foundational time for child development. But, during the pandemic, early childhood programs have been challenged. Some have closed entirely while some have stayed open since Day 1. Others offer remote learning or hybrid opportunities as the school year begins. With all of the inconsistency and uncertainty, early childhood educators are doing their best to support the children and families in their programs. Our experts explain how to do that alongside the pressures to take learning online during the pandemic. Here are our 6 favorite takeaways from the wise words of these two dynamic speakers.

Missed this opportunity live? Click here to view the recording and stay tuned for our upcoming events here.


Use screens sparingly and wisely.

According to DEY’s recent survey results, most families of young children saw that their children were unfocused and disengaged during screen-based remote learning in the spring. For many remote programs, however, some screen use is mandatory. Denisha and Nancy suggested that educators can:

  • Provide drop-in times. Make screen time as optional as possible, even if you have to take attendance. For example, can you take attendance by having a family member send a photo of their child playing? Can attendance be a 1-minute cameo during an hour-long drop in time? Can families schedule specific times that work for them? Use video tools like Zoom to do a whole class meeting or check-in, perhaps once per week or as needed. Or, offer to be on Zoom for whenever children have questions, but don’t require them to be there if it’s not relevant to them.
  • Provide opportunities for children to share. Young kids are concrete thinkers and it’s easier for them to get engaged when they have a hands-on opportunity. So, try out Show-and-Tell via Zoom! Invite them to do a project like playing with play dough then show the results. Ask them to find something blue around their home and see if others can guess what it is from their description.
  • Tell a story, do a puppet show, sing a song. Optional opportunities to listen to a read-aloud or help two puppet friends solve a conflict are great ways to use screens when you’re not in person. How about a video dance party? Be sure to help kids find ways to disconnect once they are watching by having a follow-up activity ready.
  • Use screen time as a prompt for hands-on, low tech learning. Video meetings and other online tools can be used to inspire offline learning. Try a prompt like this: “Turn off your camera and then go do this activity. Come back in 20 minutes and tell us what you did!” Or, “Watch this video about how birds build their nests, and then go collect your own nest materials and build somewhere cozy for your bird family. Have your grown up send us a photo if you’d like!”

Partner with families.

It is absolutely critical that we work with parents as much as the children especially in times of crisis. Parents and caregivers are the child’s first teachers, so both experts suggested meeting with them regularly. “During the first week, meet with every parent. Just talk to them for 20-30 minutes. Ask them how it’s going work-wise, financially, emotionally. Sometimes families just need someone to listen to them,” suggested Denisha. Collaborate with families to identify ways to work together to support their child and to help the family feel as successful as possible, even if the program is in-person. This partnership is especially important when children have special needs, as services have been interrupted.


Let them play.

Nancy reminded us that “play and learning are not separate in the early years.” She said, “I say to parents who are worried about their child falling behind that you have everything you need to provide for your child… Learning is going on all the time in all aspects of their being.” As educators and parents, we need to be doing everything possible to make sure that children have ample time to engage in creative, hands-on, imaginative play. In the classroom, this is as simple as setting up a time to engage with classroom materials. At home, however, encourage parents to collect their old clothes for dress up, offer pots/pans/spoons for mixing and experimenting, and carve out a small space or surface when possible to host their mess. Children learn math concepts by sorting and scooping, literacy concepts by playing restaurant and creating their own menus, and social skills by imagining how their dolls might solve a problem together. Honoring a child’s need to play is the best strategy to ease parents’ worries about falling behind.

Play is also a tool for processing emotions, especially during difficult times. COVID has woven its way into children’s play often over the past several months. This is a healthy way for kids to provide themselves with a sense of meaning-making through tragedy. In fact, according to Nancy, when kids “play COVID,” the pandemic becomes their story; it gives them a sense of empowerment through a very scary situation. So, let them play! “When we go back to school, we are going to need more time for imaginative play than they ever had before,” said Nancy.

Worried about social distancing?

Denisha reminds us that social distancing for young children looks different than for adults. For early childhood programs, it has meant creating small group sizes so that exposure risks are less. Some programs have seen success in requiring masks for preschoolers.


Be consistent.

Consistent daily routines are crucial for children to feel like they have a handle on their world, especially in times of uncertainty. When kids know what to expect, they are better able to regulate their emotions, act independently, and feel successful. For in-person schooling, keeping things as stable as possible will ensure this success. Remote educators can provide suggested routines for families to do at home and make sure offerings are clear and regular for families. Nancy suggests a simple daily routine chart that lets children know what to expect each day. Educators can send those materials home or families can make them independently. This is also a great way for parents to let children know when they are available for play, especially if they are also working from home.


Partner with children, too!

One of the best ways to help young kids thrive during remote learning is to support the development of self-direction skills. To do so, educators can partner with children to find out what motivates them by asking questions, listening, and observing. Young children need to learn in a way that matters to them, so building curriculum around their interests will help them to stay engaged either at school or at home. Educators can support children remotely by identifying areas of interest and supplying families with the tools for study.


Use your teacher voice.

As early educators, you know what children need. They need to play. They need a caring adult to show them that their play matters. They need consistency. They need limits on screen time. Many reopening plans have not fully taken into account the developmental needs of very young children. Educators can voice their concerns. Nancy said, “Fight back. Explain what you know about child development. Advocate for the kids. We know sitting in front of a screen is not good or healthy for children. We can help parents so much to understand how children learn, how to support play, even how to make play dough.”

Denisha explained, “The function of schooling is very different from what happens in our homes, and we can’t expect them to be the same.” Opportunities for children during and after the pandemic must align with their developmental needs and support families fearlessly. “It’s so easy in the confusion, the change, and the unpredictability of the current situation to forget. It’s easy to be panicked about the day to day. But kids are still kids. They have the same needs,” offered Nancy. So, let them keep diving in to that screen-free, hands-on play as much as possible.