Implementing Virtual Learning in a COVID World

Stephanie Gomes, RECE and director and co-founder of Play To Grow shares with us her journey on launching her new company that provides at-home learning experiences for children. Stephanie gives us a few easy techniques to incorporate technology in the classroom and start virtual learning in your own center or classroom.

Learn more about Play To Grow and book a virtual learning session through their Facebook or Instagram pages.

Episode Transcript

Stephanie GOMES:

There’s a lot of times in my classroom where we’ll be having these conversations and the children, while I’m helping them feel, they’re making me feel better. Because it’s nice to know that there’s people who feel the same way that you do and it’s important to have a community around you.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Stephanie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

GOMES:

Hi, Ron, thank you for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It is absolutely our pleasure, Stephanie. We have with us, everybody, Stephanie Gomes. She is the director and co-founder of Play To Grow and is a registered early-childhood educator here in Ontario, Canada. We’re really excited to talk to Stephanie today because she’s taken a really interesting journey through COVID-19 as an educator. Stephanie, let’s start off learning a little bit about you. Why did you decide to get into early-childhood education?

GOMES:

It’s a funny story, I must say. I vividly remember being in high school and I did a co-op placement at a school board. And I was working with a grade one-two class. And I remember my supervisor, my supervising teacher, asking me, “Is this for you?” And I said, “Absolutely not. I can’t do kids.”

And then I work towards policing for a majority of my high school life. And then I went on to do police foundation and realized that wasn’t for me. But I knew that I wanted to serve the community in some way or another. And I believe that early-childhood education planted itself in my lap. And since the day I got the call from a center that I used to go to asking me to be a supply, it’s been the rest is history.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, that’s kind of a neat thing, is that you’re an educator at a childcare and early learning program where you went to as a child. Do you think that that’s, I guess, made you or allowed you to approach it a little bit differently? Or do you think about things a bit differently as an educator in a program where you attended years ago as a child?

GOMES:

Sure. I think I’m very, very lucky that I get to work with so many amazing educators who were once my teachers is actually quite surreal. And I work in such a fantastic environment where the educators are respected and they’re viewed as professionals. And we’re very lucky because our ideas mean so much to our supervisor. And she will nurture, she will support us through everything. So, I feel like I’ve been very, very blessed with the position that I’m in.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, so important. And you have since taken an opportunity to do something quite entrepreneurial. So, you started Play To Grow, which is a virtual learning opportunity. Tell us more about what you’re doing there with Play To Grow.

GOMES:

Yeah, so Play To Grow is an online platform where we provide virtual learning experiences for children in the three-to-six age range. What prompted it is actually quite remarkable, I think. When we were on lockdown in Ontario, I worked very closely with the center that I’m at, in terms of reopening.

And I got to talk to a lot of the families and a lot of the parents. And they voiced to me about their anxiety about coming back to childcare. And how can you blame them? It was such an uncertain time. So, me and my colleague, Diana McGregor, she was amazing. We both were like, “If our families feel this way, imagine how many other families feel this way?”

So, we felt compelled to do something about it. And that’s where the idea for Play To Grow came from, really. We knew that children who didn’t return to childcare would miss out on learning opportunities during such a crucial age for development. So, that’s why we felt inclined to provide these experiences in lieu of traditional in-person learning.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And you’re doing this, I understand, over and above being an early-childhood educator on the front lines in the physical classroom, as well. Is that right?

GOMES:

Yes. So, basically, when we came back to work, because we weren’t able to move from room to room, we are situated in our before- and after-school program. But during the day, we’re actually on a split shift where we don’t have anything to do at the center we’re at.

So, we took advantage of that time to really dive deep into virtual learning and providing these experiences for not only some of the children from the center we work at, but for basically anybody who was looking to get involved with a virtual learning program.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I love it. I love how you had the curiosity and then also the energy to go and explore and do something above and beyond. And speaking of which, how do you find the energy? Because I know it takes a lot of energy just to be an early-childhood educator is so challenging. And I can’t even imagine having enough energy to do that, let alone that and providing virtual learning, as well.

GOMES:

Absolutely. It can be challenging; it can be draining. But at the end of the day, it’s so rewarding. I know that both me and my colleague are doing something very special with Play To Grow. I know that working on the front lines in a physical classroom where we’re trying our best. And as much as it can be draining, we know that we’re doing what’s best for our children right now.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And tell us a little bit more about how this works. Sort of, like, walk us through, I guess. If I’m a parent and I’m interested in doing virtual learning with Play To Grow, how does that work?

GOMES:

Okay, so, basically you would come over to either our Facebook page or our Instagram page. We’re very active on social media. I think we’re all very fortunate in a time where social media is the greatest advertisement. And you can come, we have full overviews of each of our sessions. We run sessions from Monday through Friday.

Each session is different. So on Mondays we have Connect And Learn, which basically focuses on, like, circle time – we do songs, letters, weather. On Tuesday, we do Count And Learn – so, we focus on mathematics. On Wednesdays, we do Explore And Learn, where we focus on scientific inquiries. On Thursday, we do Create And Learn. And on Friday we do Read And Learn.

So, it’s really awesome because the sessions are at the same time every day but there’s always something new. And I think as a parent, you’re going to get a lot out of your experience at Play To Grow. So, basically, if you’re a parent, you would come over, you would check out our overview. We post lesson plans a week in advance.

And if you are interested in signing up for even just one session, you would head over to our scheduling link, which is available across our social media platforms. And you can go ahead and pick whatever day you want.

And then we prepare for the little ones by getting their nametag ready. And everything is really personalized. Also, our enrollment forms, we ask about their interests; we ask about what makes them unique. We really want to get to know your child before they come for a session. So, it really is something special.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so it’s live, then?

GOMES:

Yes, it’s completely live. It’s a 30-minute session every day.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And is it through Zoom [online video conferencing]? Or what technology to use?

GOMES:

Yeah, we use Zoom. So, we have the Zoom link open 15 minutes before. That gives you some time to prep your child, get them situated. We always encourage you to have an open space where they can move because even on days where we’re doing artwork or we’re doing science exploration, we always want to get their bodies moving because they’ve been at play for so long. And we really want to encourage that gross motor development, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And do you find that most of the families that are working with you at Play To Grow, the children are not in childcare at all? Or do you have also some families that maybe the children are going to childcare programs – either full-time or part-time – but then doing Play To Grow, as well?

GOMES:

Currently, most of our families are just at home and they’ve chosen to spend their days with us. And that means the most to us. We have had a few inquiries about children who may be doing part-time in childcare and they would come us the days that they’re not there. But for the most part, we have a lot of children who just are at home. But we have such a flexible schedule where you could come for one day [amidst] one week, [and then] come for the full week [the] next week. So, it really is easy to tailor to what your needs are as a family.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Right, yeah. And is there sort of like a maximum capacity to your sessions? Or how does that work?

GOMES:

Yes, so we learned very quickly… we are a new business, right? But as soon as we started, we had a cap at 12 children per session and we quickly realized that that wasn’t [manageable]. So, we decided to cap it at eight. And we find that since lowering the number, it’s been a lot better. We find that the children get more out of the session because we’re able to really connect with each of them on a personal level. It was a little bit more difficult when you had a larger group. So, yeah, we cap it at eight and it’s been really nice like that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, interesting. Eight seems to be kind of the magic number that I’ve heard from other sources as well, just in terms of, like, group dynamics. And I love how you’ve personalized it. I’m sure that’s been a really key part of what you’re doing, what’s really unique and special about it for the families and for the children.

Any other thoughts in terms of implementing virtual learning? I think there’s a lot of programs out there who have tried it, maybe some more or less successfully, some folks that maybe are reluctant to try it. Any information you’d like to share with them about things that have worked or reasons why they might want to explore it, if they have not?

GOMES:

For sure. Technology, especially in childcare, is such a fresh idea. I remember about a year ago going through an environmental assessment tool and they were talking about technology in the classroom. And it almost seemed like this bizarre subject I could never imagine because technology is just still so new. So, I can understand why somebody may be reluctant to bring technology to the classroom or to engage in virtual learning.

I think the most important thing – and what really motivated me to start up Play To Grow – is that children have missed out on so much this year. And I feel that we owe it to them to provide opportunities such as virtual learning to ensure the success of every child throughout some of their most important years.

So, if that’s not a good enough reason, I think for children, consistency and time is equally as important as consistency in people. So, I think that engaging in a virtual learning program will help bring back that consistency for the children in their early years. Because if you think about it, this past year that’s been completely wiped from them and they’re missing the consistency, they’re missing the social interaction. And I think it’s important that we provide them with opportunities to get that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, I know for our son, that part was quite important for him, I think, is just seeing and talking to his teachers from his childcare program. Even if it was over a video call or Zoom it was great to maintain that connection and that relationship.

GOMES:

Absolutely, yeah.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

You mentioned technology is something that’s still quite new for a lot of folks. And I think a lot of people have been forced to adopt technology in 2020. But for those who are maybe resistant to technology or virtual learning, any recommendations in terms of how you might work with those folks, whether that is as an educator or as a family, as well?

GOMES:

Yeah, so with our families, for example, we always post videos, or we’ll send them upon request, little snippets of what we do during our sessions. There can be a lot of misconceptions when hearing “virtual learning”. A lot of people seem to get this idea that there’s no interaction between the educator and the children. And being within the virtual learning world now, that is not the case. And I think virtual learning is a really great way to promote the learning in the early years in lieu of the traditional learning.

So, yeah, I think by showing them examples of how virtual learning can be beneficial is the greatest tool, which is why me and my colleague, we are constantly sending videos, we’re constantly sharing videos. And we just like to be very transparent about the whole process.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and I think how we talked about it before with having a maximum of eight children and making it personalized and individualized in that way I think is certainly an important aspect of it. The other thing I would say, too, is, from a parent’s perspective, personally I kind of think about it, too, in terms of like alternative options.

So, if my child’s at home, one thing I could have him do is watch TV. So, that would be kind of like the least educational or stimulating thing. The next best thing, which we like to do, is maybe do, like, an audio book online. So, they can see the pictures and see the words and it’s reading aloud to him, which is a step better. But then the virtual learning is even better because it’s live and it’s with a human being who’s an early-childhood educator and understands how to [educate].

So, I’m kind of thinking like, on the learning curve, from watching TV to spending half an hour or an hour in one of these virtual learning sessions, it’s kind of a no-brainer for me to have him spending [time in the latter]. And I’m sure I’ve no doubt he would love it just as much as watching a show.

GOMES:

Exactly. And I think that’s the problem, is people think about the idea of their child sitting in front of a screen and that’s it. They think that it stops there. But when you’re in a virtual learning program, there is so much more to it. They get to socialize with other children their age; they get to engage in learning activities. They work on so many different areas of development when they’re in virtual learning. It may not be the most ideal, but it’s what we have to do right now. And I think it’s important that we adapt to the ever-changing situation.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and it’s more interactive; it’s more engaging. And yeah, I can totally see how that would be a different experience. So, that’s really helpful. And if we’re thinking about [it], a lot of this conversation has been, “Well, we have to do this right now.” Lots of situations, we don’t have other options or we’re not comfortable with that.

But what about once COVID is gone, which we’re all hoping will be as soon as possible? And we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines coming out. But how do you think about virtual learning beyond COVID?

GOMES:

I’ve really come to love virtual learning because I can honestly say that I was probably one of those people prior to COVID who was reluctant, who was very uneasy about it. But it’s unfortunate that something so disheartening had to prompt something like Play To Grow.

But I do believe that virtual learning can live on past COVID. I definitely think that there could be some families who will choose to stay home, even once they return to some type of normalcy. And I also think that taking up a few virtual sessions on the weekend would be a great idea for any child.

I think that teachers, educators and families have become so much more comfortable and will continue to become more familiar with virtual learning that it will become a part of the new norm, post-COVID. Because I truly don’t think we’ll ever return to the normal before – we will return to a new normal. And I think virtual learning will be a huge part of that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, I can certainly see that for sure, from my perspective. I like the idea about on weekends or in the evening or something like that totally, totally makes sense. We’ve talked a lot about the virtual aspect but there’s a lot of folks who are on the front lines as early-childhood educators in the classroom still, including yourself. Any words of advice or wisdom for all of those out there who are battling a job that’s extremely difficult in the best of times and even more difficult right now?

GOMES:

Yes, it’s been quite the experience for me. I think from the beginning of this pandemic ‘til now I’ve had a complete shift of perspective. At the beginning, I told myself, “This is the worst. It won’t get better.” But now I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and I continue to tell myself that you have to make the best of the situation, even though it’s a really horrible one.  There’s good that will come out of everything.

And in terms of early-childhood education, specifically, when I came back to work in September, I very quickly realized that if I’m having such a hard time doing this, imagine how the children are feeling. So, it’s important for us to talk about our emotions and talk about how we’re feeling.

And there’s a lot of times in my classroom where we’ll be having these conversations and the children, while I’m helping them feel better, they’re making me feel better. Because it’s nice to know that there’s people who feel the same way that you do. And it’s important to have a community around you.

And most importantly, what I’ve learned is that you can’t pour from an empty cup. So, I try my best to keep myself well, to keep myself healthy. And we’re going to persevere through this. And I think that’s the most important thing to keep in mind.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s good advice. And maybe this is a good way to end [the episode] in terms of the conversation coming full circle. Because I asked you at the beginning, “How do you have the energy to do this?” Do you think you get energy from doing this?

GOMES:

Oh, yes, 100%. I’ve always said that I am so lucky to work in a field that will probably keep me young forever. Because yes, like I said, it can be draining. But the children are so inspirational. And the more the more years that I spend in the field, the more I realize how much I’m molding them but they’re molding me, as well. And it definitely keeps me energetic; it definitely keeps me on my toes.

And it’s such a rewarding field, really. And I’m happy to have become so well-rounded in it now, between the physical classroom and the virtual classroom. So, between my before-and-after children and the children on my sessions, I can’t help but be energized all day. Once I get home, it’s a different story.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and you know what, though, like kudos to you for taking on a new challenge above and beyond what you’re doing in the classroom with Play To Grow and virtual learning. And like you said, you’re learning – you’re learning from the children you’re working with; you’re learning about the technology. And that’s all awesome. And I think speaking also as an entrepreneur, it’s hard, there’s lots of challenges. But I think there’s a lot of energy that can come out of doing something new and different, as well.

GOMES:

Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. Well, Stephanie, thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. It’s been totally wonderful having you as a guest. And I’m sure our listeners have gotten a lot out of your experience with virtual learning, something that is a hot topic in 2020, but likely also to continue. If our listeners would like to get in touch with you or learn more about Play To Grow, where can they go to get more information?

GOMES:

They can follow up on Instagram at @PlayToGrow. Or they can find us on Facebook: you can either search “Play To Grow” in the search bar or if you type in the URL, www.Facebook.com/PlayToGrow20.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. Stephanie, thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!

GOMES:

Thank you so much!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Community Ambassador at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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