As I write this my children are back in virtual school after two weeks of winter break. During the break, my four children (two grade school-aged, a preschooler and a toddler) engaged in deep imaginative play. They wrote, designed costumes and sets, and performed plays; built a freeform Lego Hogwarts (all the while constructing a series of cars for the 2-year old to keep him occupied); and busied themselves making endless little trinkets for one another as gifts. Outdoors, they developed an elaborate imaginary game of warring kingdoms. Each child constructed a fort in one corner of the yard and met in the middle for swordplay and council meetings. As a parent, I make a practice of observing them with a critical eye, noticing all they are learning and working through in play. As I watched them over break, I was struck that this play seemed both so familiar and typical for them, but also that it had been a long time since I had seen them play in this way.
What started as a small nugget in the back of my mind during break, became obvious when school resumed. Now my older children spend their mornings on zoom, and the afternoon is mostly taken up with reading quietly in their beds or maybe playing in their room. This was what I became accustomed to seeing since school started and why their play over break had struck me. After a morning online, there are no sweeping imaginative games that engross all four kids for hours.
The tenor of my childrens’ play changes on distance learning days. They seem lethargic, tired and spent from their morning online, while simultaneously vibrating with pent up energy. I push them outside, but they struggle to get into the same wonderful play groove they previously enjoyed. There is more fighting as siblings struggle to remain on the same page or some will want to play while others do not. They do not seem able to problem-solve their differences in play ideas. Rather than being motivated to work it out simply to ensure play continues, they give up and retreat to read alone in their room. Meanwhile, my little two happily play with one another, but they also yearn for the bigger ones and do not understand their absence.
I deeply appreciate and marvel that my children can self-regulate in this way. I know that after a stimulating morning online perhaps an afternoon of quiet reading is just what they need. Also, I want to provide the caveat that I am thrilled with how their teachers structured distance learning and know that my kids are primarily happy, engaged and learning. Still, I wonder what these play changes signify and watch my children for clues as to their mental health and how they are weathering these times. We are all walking through this global crisis together for the first time, and no one knows how to navigate past every hurdle. I am finding value in this Reggio-inspired practice of curious observation and allowing my noticings to affect how I respond to my children’s changing needs.
Reba Batalden co-founded and currently serves as Board Chair of St. Paul School of Northern Lights, a Reggio-inspired K-8 school. She holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and during her graduate tenure developed and taught inquiry-based, interdisciplinary science curriculum for St. Paul Public Schools and professional development courses for middle and high school science teachers. In a pandemic, she is mama, teacher, chef and playmate to 4 children, ages 10, 8, 5 and 2.