The Power of In-Person Learning


It’s been a little over a month since our 14Y Preschool welcomed families back for in-person learning. We’ve implemented strict health and safety measures to ensure the health and wellbeing of our families, but what has Preschool really been like for everyone? I caught up with Alyssa Slotnick, one of our Preschool teachers, to learn more about what the last five weeks have been like for everyone.  

Alyssa, how did Preschool reopening go for you as a teacher?  

The Preschool reopening went better than I expected! Changes that I was worried about, like staggered drop-off where caregivers and children saying bye to grown ups in the lobby instead of in the classroom, ended up running smoothly and quickly became routine. I was so proud of all of us on staff for coming together and making it work, and it felt really nice to be back in the classroom, building strong, in-person relationships with the kids, and offering a safe, supportive space to help them through everything that’s going on.

That’s so great to hear! Can you tell us a little about how the health and safety measures are going with children, who are as young as 2 years old? Are they following the new routines? What have you done to help them understand why these measures are in place? I can’t image what it’s like getting a child to wear a mask all day long! 

In the Preschool we talk a lot about “adulting” the kids, which is what we call it when we project our adult thinking and preconceived ideas onto the children’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In many ways, I think that our worries about how the kids would react to the safety measures were “adulting.” For the kids, measures like putting used toys into the Wash-me Bin instead of back on the shelf and spacing out chairs at the table are just things that we do at school, the same way we line up before we leave the classroom and we wash our hands before we eat lunch. We as adults project all of our anxieties about the pandemic onto these tasks, but for the kids a lot of them are just a mundane part of their day.

Bigger changes like wearing a mask during the school day can be trickier, especially for the two-year-olds. But we really work to frame it as a positive action we get to do for others, rather than a fear-based reaction to a negative situation. Again, we as adults have all these negative associations with wearing our masks, but kids have positive associations with masks, too. We talk about how superheroes wear masks when they’re keeping people safe, and when we wear masks, we help everyone stay safe and healthy too. We talk about how it’s one way that we can all help our community and take care of each other. We also work it into the classroom environment, by doing things like putting little masks on our baby dolls. That way, it’s normalized for the kids, and they can see it as something that’s not scary or strange, it’s just something people do to help each other.

That’s such a lovely sentiment and so very true! I love that you’re teaching children empathy and the importance of helping others.  
As a teacher who went from a virtual classroom, from when we quickly pivoted in March due to the pandemic, to being back in a real classroom, what do you think is the value of in-person learning compared with the virtual alternative?   

There are many benefits to in-person learning over virtual learning. Child-to-child interaction is so much stronger in person. Especially for very young children, talking to other people through a screen can feel distant and passive. So much of how young children learn and connect with each other is through using their bodies and existing in the same physical space. Watching a screen isn’t the same, and there’s only so long a child can sustain attention on a screen.

However, when we shutdown last March, we managed to create an extremely engaging virtual school experience due to the relationships we built with our students and families. This doesn’t always work everywhere, and at the epicenter of our social/emotional curriculum is relationship building. This helped us find success in the virtual world, and if we need to do it again, I know we can do it as a school!

When everyone is in their own separate space, we can’t coach the children through all the natural conflicts and negotiations that arise. We can’t let them play beside each other until they naturally spark up a conversation based on shared materials and play. In this way, virtual learning ends up being much more teacher-directed, as opposed to child-led, as all the children need to be focused on the same thing at the same time, there is less room for natural peer collaboration through play, and whatever is happening on screen has to be exciting enough to hold their attention and keep them sitting in one place for an extended period of time. I know there are many educators out there who are doing amazing things with the options they have available to them right now, including virtual learning. But I am personally relieved to have the opportunity to be back in the classroom fostering a close community of learners.

Yes, a huge shoutout to educators who are utilizing virtual tools to support education! We know it’s challenging and commend your efforts!  
Well it sounds like there’s a lot going on in the classroom now that in-person learning has resumed. What is your classroom like? How many children do you teach? What’s a day like for them?   

Currently, my class has eight two-year-olds. It’s a small group, which means that we have plenty of time to give each child individualized attention and attend to their social-emotional needs in these turbulent times. It also means that they are already a tight-knit group with beautifully close friendships with each other. Our classroom really feels like a community already.

In terms of what a typical day is like for the kids, not that much has changed from previous years. The kids come into the classroom in the morning and find play-dough, blocks, and art supplies. We follow their interests and the natural progression of their play to bring in new materials and projects to work on at choice time. We sing, dance, and share ideas in morning meeting. We spend plenty of time outside on the roof. We have really remained true to the fundamentals of our program.

That sounds like so much fun and truly engaging! I know it’s only been about five weeks since Preschool started up again, but have you seen any impact of in-person learning on the children you work with?  

Definitely! As I mentioned before, it is so beautiful to see friendships between the kids growing so much in such a short time. They love to help each other. They’re always bringing each other toys they know the other likes. We have the families make “me-books” for their child with pictures of the child, their family, and some of their favorite things, to keep in the classroom. Every time someone starts reading a me-book, all the kids gather around to listen. They are so eager to learn about each other and share about themselves. We can tell it is so fulfilling for them to navigate these relationships and begin to build their own social worlds outside of their family units.

OMG that’s too cute. I can’t even. How did you come to be a teacher at the 14Y Preschool? What’s your favorite part of teaching?

I found the 14Y Preschool when I first moved to NYC, and it just felt like a perfect fit. I have always been passionate about the child-directed philosophy, and after working here for my first year, I fell in love with emergent curriculum and helping the kids’ interests and passions come to life in a way that is real and meaningful for them.

There are so many things that I love about teaching, but one of my favorite things is the moment that children realize that their words and ideas have weight in my classroom; when they make a suggestion and know that I will follow through because I respect what they have to say and their right to have power over their own learning environment. It teaches them that they are important, they deserve to be heard, and they have both the power and the responsibility to create positive change in the world around them.

How empowering! It must be incredible watching these little people blossom into who they will become in the future. It sounds like you’re inspiring them to be real change-makers paving the way to a better world! Is there any advice you would give to families who are hesitant of in-person learning for their little ones, especially those who may not have experienced a classroom setting before? 

I know it’s scary to think of returning to schools and work places. It’s a really personal decision for every family, and there is no one right answer. I think my advice would be to do your research, talk to the school, and make sure you’re making a decision that you feel comfortable with. I know that we’re doing everything we can to keep the kids safe and help everyone stay healthy. At our school, the teachers and administrators are happy to talk through anxieties, explain all of the extensive safety measures, and help you to feel confident in the decision to send your child to school.

I would also say that your child may be more resilient and ready for the classroom than you realize. Many of our parents have been surprised at how quickly their child has transitioned into the room, coming to school smiling and confident in the morning. Although it can feel scary to release your child into a school setting for the first time, it can actually be a really empowering experience for the child. They learn the power of building their own community where they can practice making their own decisions, developing their independence, and exploring a space that is truly their own.

Well said. Perhaps it’s harder on the parents and caregivers than the children to say “see you later” when they’re dropped off each day. So, what’s the first thing you’re going to do when this pandemic is finally over?  

Go out to eat in a restaurant! I know that’s already an option in a lot of places, but I don’t feel ready yet. Take-out is nice, but I can’t wait to have the real restaurant experience again!

Same! I think everyone feels that way and I’m sure the restaurants will appreciate the extra business once this is all over.
Thank you, Alyssa, for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m sure parents greatly appreciate the hard work you and the other educators are doing to ensure their children are truly thriving and growing in your classrooms. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the 14Y Preschool, book a free virtual tour by clicking here.

Details about our program, dates, rates, and our extensive health and safety measures can be found here.