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Thinking Beyond "Second Best"

What should we do when the essence of a play and inquiry based early childhood program– groups of children and their teachers playing, exploring, and creating together in close physical proximity using shared materials – is the antithesis of social distancing and other recommendations to prevent the spread of CIVOD-19?

Self-portraits, - Children, age 4

Remote learning seems inadequate compared with in-person experiences, dropping-off children at the door is not a gradual separation process, and the time teachers spend sanitizing materials throughout the day cannot be spent facilitating exploration.

While choices like these may be necessary, they feel like “second best” – not what we would do under normal circumstances.

As I was lamenting the idea that this may be a year of “second best”, I remembered something Amelia Gambetti, a Reggio educator and pedagogical consultant, said at a conference when the Hundred Languages of Children exhibit first toured the United States.

While those of us in attendance marveled at their classroom environments, the children’s work, and the documentation panels, most of us were convinced that we could not teach in a similar way: “We don’t have enough time.” “Our classrooms are too small”. “The children won’t focus on a topic for that long.”

After patiently addressing concern after concern, Amelia finally said, “Don’t tell me what you can’t do,. Tell me what you can do!” I may not remember her exact words, but I vividly remember their message,

It was an “aha” moment for me. I needed to stop thinking about what we can’t do this year, and focus instead on what we can do.


This is my list, and I invite you to create your own.

  • Listen intently – Listening involves more than hearing children’s words. It is a pathway to understand their thinking, their questions, their hopes, and their fears.

  • Observe carefully – Children also speak to us through their actions and interactions, their constructions, their dramatic play, and their art. Observing is another way of listening.

  • Ask thoughtful and engaging questions – Asking the right question is an essential part of helping children construct a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

  • Choose materials intentionally – If we must limit the amount of materials we use or supply to families, each one must encourage children to explore, think, and create in multiple ways.

  • Nurture and promote play – Play and learning are not separate experiences. Play is the way children learn. We can facilitate play at school and help families foster play at home.

  • Embrace families are our partners – Even as we maintain a social distance, we can find creative ways to strengthen our relationships with families.

  • Advocate for transformation - The times of crisis also hold the potential for systemic transformation. We can collaborate with colleagues, both locally and nationally, to engage in the difficult work of bringing about racial equity and justice in our educational systems and our society.

  • Support and care for each other – We need each other’s wisdom and kindness so that we, in turn, can nurture and support children and families.

While so many things are beyond our control this year, our way of thinking about and being with children is not. Children know if their teachers really see them, hear them, understand them, respect them, and care about them. That is the foundation of best practice; and in this time of change and uncertainty, it is more important than ever.


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