Innovation in the Time of Corona – By Didi Ananda Devapriya

Innovation in the Time of Corona

By Didi Ananda Devapriya

As Corona virus swept around the globe, shutting down whole economies in its wake, our NHE projects in Romania were no exception. Both the Rasarit kindergarten in Bucharest and the Fountain of Hope after school in Panatau were forced to suspend their activities by government orders.

Initially, our kindergarten team saw it as a welcome respite to focus fully on catching up the mountain of bureaucratic requirements for accreditation, as the final inspection was scheduled for May. Within a week or so, however, it became apparent that this was not just a temporary closure of a couple of weeks, but something much bigger, without a predictable end in sight. Parents started contacting us, asking for reductions in fees, or pulling out. We also started wondering, how were the children coping with the scary streams of news, and the restrictions of staying inside small apartment buildings?

Innovate and Adapt

It was time to innovate and adapt. I quickly organized crash courses in online meetings for the teachers, and we met on Zoom to discuss meaningful ways we could support the parents and the children. Teachers started out by sending their weekly planning emails, with ideas that parents could do with their children at home. Sorina started to record herself telling stories, using her mobile phone. The children were so comforted to hear her voice, and parents were soon sending us photos or stories of their child snuggled up in bed, listening to her voice.

Online Trial and Error

We then experimented with having an online version of circle time with the children by Zoom. It was a trial and error experience. The children were so relieved and excited to see each other and their teachers that they all wanted to speak at once, which resulted in chaos, of course. We discovered that it isn’t so easy to hold their attention from a distance, or to have them wait their turn to speak (even when using the mute options – some got very upset that they couldn’t be heard).

Aware that screen time presents its own dangers to the sensitive, developing mind of young children, we didn’t want all of our activities to be screen dependent, and we really debated what the best use of the online meetings should be. We decided that its principal use would be for maintaining the social connections between the children and with teachers. We found that interactive games, like “Simon says” are more fun and engaging than trying to hold the attention of the whole group on a story or lesson. Sharing experiences, demonstrating experiments they can do with their parents, singing (if everyone is on mute, otherwise it becomes chaotic as the audio is not perfectly synched and lags), worked well – and some storytelling, though mostly we found that the stories work better if recorded and sent to the parents to use at other moments. Virginia suggested painting on the windows, to children, and some sent back beautiful photos of their experiments.

New emerging talents

Soon the teachers were curious how to make video versions of their stories, with background music and effects, and images. I held another online crash course in how to use a simple free video-editing software (Videopad). Madhavii and her teenage daughter Kalyanii began producing gorgeous stories with images from storybooks. Next we will explore storytelling with puppets and maybe even stop-motion animation.

Who are the teachers now?

In the meantime, we realized that in this period, our role is more that of consultants or coaches for the parents. It is the parents who are actually the ones leading the educational activities, as there is only so much you can do in a short online meeting. Many of our parents are quite overwhelmed with balancing working from home with also having to take care of their children. They seem to appreciate the suggestions and ideas for activities that otherwise they would not have had time to research. It is a real joy to receive photos that the parents send us of the children engaged in different activities that we have suggested, and seeing the children’s own creativity as they explore and improvise new, unexpected directions.

Prioritizing socio-emotional support

Providing interesting activities has been helping to channelize the children’s energy towards positive, interesting, educational experiences. However, we also recognize that more important than ensuring progress towards typical educational goals, is to provide the socio-emotional support as we all collectively navigate a worldwide, historic natural disaster. We have been translating therapeutic stories that our friend and expert Susan Perrow has been publishing for this purpose. Indeed, my experience participating in the AMURT/ EL Child Friendly Spaces programs, after natural disasters and in refugee work, has been very useful. Routines and predictable, familiar structures help to normalize the situation, such as the ritual of meetings with teachers and friends online, instead of morning circles. I have been sharing resources for parents and children on how to use belly breathing to switch off stress and enjoy peaceful moments together. Mihaela will be experimenting with using persona dolls, to help open up discussion about the children’s feelings of frustration or sadness in not being able to go to kindergarten or outside to play.

So part of my role has also been to research and send parent’s child-friendly, appropriate resources for explaining COVID and dealing with the emotions that may come up. Activities, like making masks, can help to demystify and even make a game out of this otherwise potentially alienating or scary new addition to people’s attire. An experiment with glitter can illustrate how germs spread in a fun way: the child puts their hands in a jar or plate with glitter and some stick. The parent does the same – and then they shake hands, pick up things, and notice how the glitter gets everywhere!

Children need honest, but reassuring explanations about what is happening. Parents can reassure children that they and lots of other grownups are doing their best to keep everyone safe. They can highlight the roles of helpers, like doctors, scientists and police in positive ways. However, it is also important to find ways for children to feel actively involved in doing their part, as this decreases the sense of powerlessness and helplessness that is characteristic of traumatic experiences, and increases their resiliency. Instead of simply telling children to wash their hands, parents and caregivers can frame these rules as ways that children can also help protect their communities. They then can give them encouragement and positive feedback whenever they see that they are remembering such rules on their own “You are really being such a great helper to our whole community by washing your hands right away – good job!”.

Indeed, in times of crisis, those that find ways to actively help others tend have greater psychological resiliency, even emerging stronger and more empowered by the experience, than they were before. This taps into our Neohumanist understanding of the core nature of human beings, in particular our deep, innate need to serve those around us. It is one of the keys to a robust, healthy sense of happiness and meaningfulness in life. I found a beautiful Mr. Rogers quote that reflects this same wisdom.

“Sá vidyá yá vimuktaye - Education is that which liberates”