The pandemic has stolen the preschool experience from young children

Several young children have been forced to spend their most active and developmentally-rich years in front of a screen due to the pandemic.
A girl writing notes from a laptop screen in front of her
A girl writing notes from a laptop screen in front of her
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Raghav* was three years old and ready for the next big milestone in his life — going to preschool. But that was in 2020, and the pandemic hit just as the school year was about to begin. After over a year and a half of attending online sessions, he finally got the opportunity to go to preschool physically and be among his peers in September last year. However, that only lasted a month before the third wave of COVID-19 forced people back into their homes and classes back online. 

Several studies show that the first five years of an individual’s life are instrumental in the way they develop — emotionally, cognitively, physically and behaviourally. When a child joins preschool, typically at the age of three or four, they are exposed to a host of new experiences which can shape them. “Preschools give children the opportunity to be in a space that allows them peer interaction. When you are in a preschool, you are in an environment that naturally allows practices to develop, to be around peers, and learning to communicate with them,” says Lakshmi Rammohan, co-founder of the Earthlings Early Years preschool in Bengaluru. 

While learning loss in online education has been noticed in children across age groups, many argue that it is preschoolers, between the ages of 3 and 5, who are affected the most. This is because preschools play an important role in facilitating the child’s overall development. As the third year of the pandemic has rolled in, Raghav’s story is similar to several young children who have been forced to spend their most active and developmentally-rich years indoors, in front of a screen.

Learning loss in the pandemic

Once a child is in class 1, they are expected to follow a particular syllabus, learn things by rote, be able to read and write for long stretches, etc. But preschool is meant to lay the foundation for the child to learn these skills. Most preschools focus on learning through activities and play. Through this, a child can learn abstract skills — focusing, compromising, trust, following instructions and more — in a natural way.

In preschools, without the expectation of academic learning, children develop the building blocks of problem-solving tools that they will use throughout their lives. This is, in large part, because it is the first time that children are in an environment other than the home, where there is no caregiver to anticipate the child’s needs.

Raghav’s mother Vaishnavi says that the preschool they chose does not put much pressure on the child or parent, even when conducted online. However, due to the pandemic, many children of Raghav’s age are compelled to sit in front of screens and thus have a two-dimensional idea of learning. “It must be very hard to socialise for a small child who has never been to school or interacted with other children, and has only interacted with his classmates online. They would usually take cues from body language and expressions, which is difficult when one is wearing a mask or interacting online,” she says.

Child psychologist Nisha John says that preschool also helps children to concentrate on one particular task and follow it through to the end. She gives the example of learning numbers through an abacus. “This is focused attention on a single task, and sustained attention for a long period. At home, the child may give up halfway and want to do something else. But in preschool, they are not allowed to leave a task midway. They miss out on learning these basic skills by not going to school,” she says.

Another important aspect, she mentions, is that a preschool can expose a child to environments and situations other than what they are used to. And since children under the age of five experience many things for the first time — climbing up and down stairs, walking in a line, holding a crayon — they are free to explore and learn more at a preschool.

According to Lakshmi, another thing that children miss out on through online preschool is a sense of routine. In a physical preschool, activities happen in a particular time and sequence. “There is a sense of familiarity — children take great comfort in familiarity, and they are able to emotionally regulate themselves far better in response to it,” Lakshmi says. This is because routines can make the transition between activities easier. However, the structure becomes more loose at home, as parents may not always be able to pay full attention to their child. 

She also says that in preschool, activities such as stacking blocks, shape, and colour recognition etc., are developed in a systematic way. But at home, children often play games as they wish. “By being in a home environment, children can lose out on that systematic approach to organic learning as there is no comprehensiveness — which is not the parents’ fault,” Lakshmi explains.

Apart from communication and socio-emotional learning, the pandemic has affected the physical activity of children. “Hopping, skipping, running, rolling around — all this happens organically in a school environment. The children also learn to fight and make up with each other, how to take turns, and use their imagination to pretend play. These are all very important for their development, for them to be able to problem solve later on in life,” says Lakshmi.

Long-term effects

After two years of living with the pandemic, educators and parents have tried to strike a balance in the way children learn and do their best with the resources that they have. But the sustained sense of uncertainty about the pandemic and the fate of physical classes can have long-term effects on young children, experts believe.

“The first five years of a child’s life has spurts of brain development. If there is no stimulation in particular areas (for example motor skills, sensory play, pretend play), the gap between the chronological age and the level of development will keep increasing,” Nisha says.

But she adds that children may still be able to learn these skills, albeit a little delayed. Many times, when children exhibit behaviour like tantrums or shortened attention, it may simply mean a lack of stimulation. “It may not mean the child has an issue. That’s where we come in to see whether it might just be the environment. Children are very resilient by nature,” she says.

According to Lakshmi, since children have been only around their parents or close family for the past two years, their ideas of communication and behaviour come from the adults. Whereas in a preschool, they deal with more diverse social experiences. “The child is going to grow up till a certain age expecting rational, logical behaviour (of their parents) from everybody, and that is an impractical expectation. We are going to have a set of frustrated children who don’t know how to handle peer equations,” she explains. 

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