Students are struggling. Schools and parents are trying their absolute best to keep our kids on track but it is clear that the “Covid slide” is real and some students are falling far behind. It is easy to understand the impact caused by the pandemic on social skills, but we should also consider how this unusual school year may be impacting the long-term academic progress and engagement of students.
We already know that students slide a bit backwards during the summer months and educators allow for that when transitioning to a new academic year. The changes to education due to the pandemic are making this even worse, especially when it comes to mathematics. Traditionally students' skills rise slightly at the end of the year before beginning their small decline over summer. Because schools halted or drastically changed their education plan in March, that growth didn’t happen and the decline in skills started earlier than normal.
As we ventured into the new school year, students had to spend much of their time adapting to learning in this new world. The support system for each student varies, but it is clear that everyone has too much on their plates right now. Teachers are being asked to navigate virtual and in-person teaching, often at the same time, and parents who are lucky enough to remain employed are being asked to juggle work with supporting their students in the classroom.
The prevalence of chronic absenteeism and lack of access to resources is alarming. Students who struggle or have extra needs and require in-person one-on-one support are falling behind at record rates. Even traditionally successful students are falling out of love with schooling as they face hours of frustrating and often less challenging school environments.
According to the Economic Policy Institute “Reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child. Once the pandemic allows it, we will need to make up for this time by increasing both the amount and quality of learning time—through extended schedules, summer enrichment and after-school activities, more personalized instruction, and staffing strategies that reduce class sizes and staff schools with sufficient and highly credentialed educators.”
As we look forward to spring and summer we will need to provide children with access to learning opportunities to ensure their academic skills continue to develop at the pace necessary to get back on track. Summer camps and activities may need to focus more heavily on concepts like math and science rather than sports and survival skills (something we have all gotten a bit better at over the last year).
We know that kids will need to continue their educational path but how do you convince a child to learn over summer vacation? Play- based learning may be just the answer.
Research shows that children’s best learning experiences are based in play. By actively designing, creating, interacting and inventing, children’s brains absorb more information. Studies have shown that using tactile elements like LEGO bricks while learning creates especially strong neural pathways in the brain. When students participate in tactile/kinesthetic activity, the two hemispheres of the brain are simultaneously engaged. This type of learning experience helps assure that new information will be retained in long-term memory.
While playing, children build and develop social skills like sharing and taking turns. In today’s world where so many students graduate and are unable to work as part of a team, development of these social skills is crucial. Through play, children also share their unique experiences, cultures, and customs. They develop empathy and emotional intelligence that will guide them as adults.
But it’s not all about the scientific evidence of play-based learning, it’s also about fun! When kids learn by playing with LEGO bricks, flying drones, or making animated movies, they enjoy the process of education. Kids get excited when they know that they will be able to talk about things like Minecraft while developing math skills. Inspiring this love of learning will be crucial as we try to rebuild the educational plan for our students.
Building and playing with toys can help also them discover a passion for engineering or science that can lead to a future career. As quoted on parentingscience.com Tiffany Tseng, an engineer in the MIT Media Lab notes "Legos are a good introduction to communicating ideas with physical objects. Putting things together and taking them apart got me interested in how things work, and by the time I was an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be an engineer."
It will no doubt be a challenge to get things back to the way they used to be. In some cases, we may not want to. Taking a step back and thinking about the best way to engage children in learning may give us fresh perspective that in the long run will improve the state of education forever. As we move into our new normal, whatever that may be, we should focus on rebuilding our students love of learning and engaging them through play-based education.