By Gabrielle Kahn
“S—s-s-s-A-a-a-a-F-f-f-f-E-e-e-e-T-t-t-t-Y-y-y-y….Safety Dance!” sounds from the laptop in my office. Wait. I know that song. It was irresistibly catchy back in middle school. My radio alarm would blast it in the morning. We’d do a dancing line to it in the cafeteria, marching around and flipping our hands this way and that while someone kept the beat to it on a tabletop. Why is it playing here, now, in our little house in upstate New York where we pass our days in quarantine and my daughter is supposed to be doing her online learning?
I decide to check it out (admittedly, with a catch in my step). Rose, our fifth grader, is sitting in front of my office computer with a big smile on her face. Okay. Clearly she’s not on task. We’re expecting that she will need a break from her lessons from time to time, some entertainment as a breather with all the screen time. I’ll give her the warning, and leave. “Mom!” She says excitedly. “Look!”
And I do. And it’s Ms. Melissa on the screen. And Ms. Melissa is mouthing the words. And there’s Ms. Carla! She’s dressed in a strangely formal outfit, doing sharp-edged movements to the rhythm. And is that Ms. Cherish spinning around and waving flags in whimsical rainbow socks? And Rose’s grammar teacher, Joel, in a jester hat, lip syncing with impeccable timing?
As Maria Montessori reminds us, “play is the work of the child.” The Russian psychologist Lev Vygostky explains that play promotes development by exercising the imagination and experimenting with the rules of real life. When we had to make the switch to online education, I understood that kids could complete math problems and write essays and submit them on screens. Play in this new two-dimensional world, I figured, would have to be put on hold.
How wrong I was. We continue to be amazed by how Rose’s Upper Elementary teachers are bringing their guided principles for teaching and learning to our new virtual reality. This includes a deep commitment to building community, and doing so joyfully. From the other side of my office door, I have heard our daughter engaging in the following: singing along to a song in Spanish, yelling “happy birthday!” to a friend, joining “recess” with the help of props from my desk, and consulting with her teacher and classmates about a self-created project, possibly involving a new recipe. These experiences cannot substitute for being in the classroom, but they are an extension of this work. And play.
Last night, in a video call with my parents and aunt and uncle, Rose was asked how school was going. She toggled back to Homestead’s Google Classroom, where the Safety Dance video tab lay waiting. There was no need to say much more.