With all the talk of remote learning at U.S. secondary schools and colleges, one important population is missing from the conversation about learning during the pandemic: babies and toddlers.
Many American parents are keeping their little ones away from playgrounds, playgroups and preschool preparatory programs. As a result, social and learning opportunities for the youngest children have been curtailed, just like everyone else’s.
Those who study and work with the youngest children are concerned about the effects on learning and school readiness.
“There is going to be a bit of a collective lag in academic skills and in those executive-function skills that allow a child to navigate a classroom more easily,” developmental psychologist Aliza W. Pressman predicted.
Without group settings, “we are missing a lot of observations, so there is going to be a whole raft of problems,” said Patricia K. Kuhl, who co-directs the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. That’s partly because group settings like day care, classrooms and even playgrounds are often where adults notice, sometimes by comparing children with their peers, that little ones have sensory, motor, cognitive and learning problems that can benefit from early interventions.
Kuhl leads the kind of brain studies that place a $2.5 million magnetoencephalography machine that looks like a “hair dryer from Mars,” as she put it, on the heads of young children to map neural activity, even as the babies are awake and fidgeting.
And that’s the kind of science that Pressman — through the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, which she co-founded — typically tries to translate into practical tools and guidance online, one-on-one and in groups for parents, caregivers, teachers and pediatricians.
The work of both women has taken on greater urgency during the pandemic.
These last few months, Pressman has seen, and helped, families innovate to provide the youngest with more interaction, education and opportunities to learn through play.
For many families, that innovation has taken the form of reconsidering screen time and digital spaces, previously a pretty big no-no for babies and toddlers.
Programs from places like Apple Seeds, a New York City-based series of indoor playgrounds and early childhood programs, have been huge for parents. The company had to close its locations this spring. It quickly pivoted the most popular in-person program, an interactive music program called Songs for Seeds, into a digital offering with live 45-minute Zoom sessions offered several times a week for a monthly fee of $25. Babies and toddlers can see not only the musician-teachers, but also, critically, one another.
On a Wednesday morning this fall, Lizzy and Kit Benz took to a makeshift stage in front of a kitchen-concealing curtain at their home in the New York borough of Queens with a keyboard and guitar in hand.
“Can we all clap our hands to the beat? Let’s clap our hands and stomp our feet!” they sang to kick off the program of original songs and call-and-response stage patter, in which the duo encouraged audience members (often by name) to name colors, shout out shapes, count and make animal sounds and movements.
It may not sound like much, but to watch babies and toddlers rocking out in a program like Songs for Seeds and its brethren is to witness the theory of learning through play come to life.
“Manipulating objects like musical instruments builds motor skills,” said Alison Qualter Berna, a co-founder of Apple Seeds. She added that making animal sounds and movements at the same time uses two parts of the brain simultaneously and encourages neural network connections; recognizing shapes is a precursor to recognizing and writing the alphabet; naming colors helps toddlers learn to describe their world in words; and understanding numbers is the basis of mathematical thinking.
For the youngest children, like Sloane Stephens, who is 17 months old, the most basic lesson is to follow along. Clad in a baby Rolling Stones T-shirt, Sloane sucked a pacifier and clapped throughout with obvious glee.
“There are other programs like ABC Mouse, Khan Academy for Kids, and Homer, but the problem is that those start at age 2,” Sloane’s mother, Maya Sharan-Stephens, said. “So the children who are at this weird in-between space, between 1 and 2, who haven’t necessarily developed the motor skills, shape and color recognition, it’s hard for them.”
Since the spring, Sloane’s family has relied on Songs for Seeds, as well as on their public library in Greenwich, Connecticut, which — like many libraries around the world — is offering online story time, puppet shows and singalongs for kids.
Still, Sharan-Stephens worries that her daughter isn’t getting enough face time with peers to be prepared for preschool when the time comes. “I see the difference when she is able to interact with other children,” she said.
Heather Superchi feared that her son, Luke, 4, was forgetting the advances he’d made socially and in speech. (Luke, an only child, has been more isolated than many other children; his premature birth has led to lingering health problems that make him at high risk for COVID-19.) “There has definitely been a little of that regression,” she said.
But with Songs for Seeds and a My Gym franchise near their home outside Denver, she said, “It’s preparing him in the way he has to pay attention and wait his turn, which I think are going to be very important when he goes to school.”
Sarah Burke, the mother of Gus Tracy, 2, said that when the pandemic first hit, “We leaned into screen time like a lot of parents did.”
Through Songs for Seeds, they noticed that Gus came alive during activities relating to the alphabet. Now, they try to re-create what Gus enjoys on screen in their neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. “So, when we go out for walks, we search for ABCs in the environment, in streets signs, license plates and other people’s T-shirts,” Burke said. In terms of language acquisition, “I just really see things clicking for him.”
Gus’ alphabet city is an example of “the good news,” as Pressman said, that “we can practice many of these skills in everyday life,” including “executive-function-based skills such as self-regulation, emotion regulation, autonomy, perspective-taking, communicating, critical thinking and self-direction.”
“You can turn almost any home-based activity or interaction into an opportunity,” Pressman said, ticking off examples.
To encourage the sense of discovery and the “problem-solving, turn-taking and perspective-taking” that comes from situations like “navigating that playground moment of when you are going up a slide, and another kid wants to come down the slide,” Pressman advises letting children play in an undirected manner.
In some homes, that may mean allowing children “to use garages, backyards, basements or attics to find opportunities for exploring,” Pressman said. If children encounter obstacles, allow them to work things out. That includes conflicts with siblings, though “if you do need to jump in, help them communicate with each other,” she said.
But bath time, feeding, diaper changes and getting dressed present the best opportunities for both babies and toddlers. “It is in those caregiving moments that some of the biggest brain boosting interactions occur,” Pressman said. To support that, she works with the nonprofit Vroom and with Healthynest, a company that makes baby products, to provide parents with free tools and ideas to maximize such moments.
And the youngest of the young are likely to benefit from extra time at home with parents during the pandemic. That’s because secure attachment is the most important foundation for brain and language development.
“In fact, we may find that their language is boosted because of time spent at home with their primary caregivers,” Pressman said. “In some ways, babies are living their best lives.”
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