Counting the friendly frogs: welcoming children back to early learning centres

Parents experienced a mix of emotions when their children returned to schools and centres at the end of Alert Level 3. There was relief at the resumption of some sort of normality, but there was also anxiety. For the parents of young children in particular, there was concern about how tamariki would re-transition into early childhood education.

Two kindergartens share their stories of transition with AKO.

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On the first day back at kindergarten post-lockdown, Rebecca Gillan is reading a book to a group of children.

“Oh, you read this book on my Mummy’s phone!” says a small voice.

“That’s right, I did,” says Gillan, who is the head teacher at Mosgiel Central Kindergarten, part of Dunedin Kindergartens.

“And I said hello to you, but you didn’t say hello back,” adds another child, reproachfully.

“Well, I am saying hello to you now,” says Gillan. “It is lovely to see you again. Did you enjoy the book?”

The gathered children agree that it was fun watching Gillan tell the story online during the lockdown. So were all the other things they had shared while at home.

Rebecca Gillan, head teacher at Mosgiel Central Kindergarten.

The kindergarten was physically closed for more than two months. During that time, Gillan and her team had worked to keep their learning community alive and functioning.

“We used Facebook and Zoom to maintain relationships,” explains Gillan. “We wanted children to continue to join in with stories and games, as well as see and talk to each other. We achieved that, and it has helped us successfully transition back to kindergarten.”

The Facebook communications began almost immediately after the kindergarten closed, while Zoom sessions were introduced in early May. As well as sharing videos of book readings, teachers used the kindergarten’s Facebook page to suggest activities for families.

The Zoom sessions were originally held every three days, but quickly became a daily appointment.

“Children came to expect the Zoom sessions. Often Mum or Dad was working from home and having meetings online, while older siblings were connecting with their teachers through Zoom. It was natural that the younger children should join in.”

Online, the Mosgiel Central Kindergarten community engaged in a whole range of learning activities.

“We were doing maths, science and language development,”says Gillan. “There were shape hunts around the house and garden, we made volcanoes in the garden and we sang rhymes together. We also had a dress-up party, which was a lot of fun.”

The connectedness – seeing friends and teachers online on a regular basis – eased the transition back to kindergarten.

The connectedness – seeing friends and teachers online on a regular basis – eased the transition back to kindergarten.

“We shared experiences during lockdown that we are able to talk about now we’re back in our kindergarten,” says Gillan. “Without that contact, I think the return would have been much harder.”

Amanda Raven, head teacher at Miramar Central Kindergarten.

At Miramar Central Kindergarten in Wellington, there has been a similar experience.

“Each day, we teachers look at each other and breathe a collective sigh of relief,” says head teacher, Amanda Raven. “We think our successful transition back is because, during the rāhui, we focused on maintaining a presence in the children’s lives.”

“We think our successful transition back is because, during the rāhui, we focused on maintaining a presence in the children’s lives.”

Like their Mosgiel colleagues, the teachers at Miramar Central used Zoom as a platform to interact with children and families. They opted for small, intimate groupings, with all five teachers and three or four children chatting and participating in activities together. The groupings tended to be based on familiarity and friendships.

“We tried to meet with two or three groups a day, twice to three times a week, to ensure the opportunity was widely available,” explains Raven. “We made an effort to make each session intentional and encouraged children to bring something to show or share with friends, to give purpose to the time. This strategy also supported participation and sharing turns. We didn’t want children to be just looking at a screen.”

Teachers planned sessions that were responsive to the needs and interests of the children in the group.

“We were sending out regular communications to parents, asking what was going on in their bubbles and what the children were finding interesting. This helped us identify and plan possible responses, such as reading particular stories, and activities like mask-making and playing musical instruments.”

Facebook and Storypark were used as platforms to share songs, games, dances and stories. It was there that special events were advertised as well, like a teddy bears’ picnic, which was a strong favourite. Another big collaboration was built around the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, where children were encouraged to send in their illustrations of the story. Those have been made up into a book, which has become a new favourite at kindergarten.

Children from Miramar Central Kindergarten were delighted to find “rainbow rocks” in their letterboxes, gardens or driveways.

On 9 May, children from Miramar Central Kindergarten were delighted to find “rainbow rocks” in their letterboxes, gardens or driveways. These gifts had been distributed by teachers to help the children feel connected to their friends and teachers. Many parents posted photos of excited children on the kindergarten Facebook page.

The rainbow rocks.

Despite their efforts during the rāhui, teachers at both kindergartens had apprehensions about how smooth the return to regular operation would be.

“At Mosgiel Central, we were a little concerned about how easily children would reintegrate and how parents would react to the new protocols,” says Gillan. “We set up a phone tree and spoke with all of the families about the new routines, particularly around drop-off and pick-up times.”

The kindergarten is lucky to have a design that allows parents to enter and leave the reception area through separate doors, making social distancing easier. That spacing was reinforced when staff spraypainted “friendly frogs” at two-metre intervals on the pathway into the building.

 “The children love counting the friendly frogs as they make their way in each morning,” says Gillan.

Miramar Central Kindergarten shared a “welcome back” video just prior to opening, which explained what to expect. It was aimed at parents, but children found it useful as well.

“Trying to limit the number of parents onsite felt like a bit of a rigmarole during the first week,” says Raven. “I did feel I had to apologise to parents that we couldn’t be as welcoming as we usually are, but they have been very accepting of these new practices.”

“I did feel I had to apologise to parents that we couldn’t be as welcoming as we usually are, but they have been very accepting of these new practices.”

Some parents were concerned that, because of the new focus on social distancing, kindergarten might be a less caring environment than it had been in the past.

“We reassured families that contact with children would be unchanged,” says Gillan. “Cuddles and closeness are still very important to the wellbeing of our children.”

Raven says that one parent expressed some concern that his child did not understand how to socially distance.

“We explained that three- and four-year-olds are naturally going to hug and hold hands. Our protocols are for adults to observe.” 

Alongside the increased handwashing and cleaning, both kindergartens have focused on the wellbeing of children and staff.

“We’ve been impressed at the resilience of our children,” says Gillan. “They’ve coped with the changes and the new routines. They’re just so happy to be back enjoying each other’s company. They may be little, but they have big friendships.”

“They’re just so happy to be back enjoying each other’s company. They may be little, but they have big friendships.”

The children at Miramar Central have adapted in much the same way.

“The online experience arose from strange and unfortunate circumstances, but it was also quite lovely in how it kept relationships alive,” says Raven. “Children are still commenting to each other, ‘I saw you on-screen.’

“A handful of children mention the coronavirus. They say that you have to wash your hands and you’re not allowed to touch people; but that’s about as much as they understand,” observes Raven. “It is the parents who have felt the anxiety, and they are really appreciative that their children are now back into their daily routines in a safe place.”

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