Community is the key for a successful re-opening

by John Yiannoudis*

Traditionally, one of our preschool’s strong points has been the unconditional families’ trust built on a number of reasons but big time on school open door policy.

In Dorothy Snot, parents were always welcomed to come in at anytime without prior notice and were offered numbers of options to get involved in school life. Quite often this proved to be disruptive for daily operation, but it has been our strong belief that parents’ active involvement in school bears more good than bad; builds mutual confidence, enhances children’ development and increases the interaction & learning within the community.

However, the covid-19 lockdown and the reluctant reopening took us into another planet with new rules; and a core one is keeping adults outside. This is hard for all to accept and in our minds could be a crucial factor to keep children further in home.

Well, forty five days after the most successful reopening we could imagine is clear that a big chunk of this success comes straight from parents’ trust and love towards the school. No happiness around if despite our strict covid-19 hygiene policy, parents would chose to keep children at home; instead though, 85% of school families returned within the first three weeks.

Living now in the age of the virus, is our core duty to keep finding new innovative ways to maintain and further build this trust. We have to be communicative and smart, make good use of technology and come up with new covid-19 compatible ideas to bring school life out in the open and keep interacting with families. In a future article I will write more.

In any case, all we educators must bear in mind that strong community bonds are key for a successful covid-19 school operation. It’s absolutely normal for families to be afraid, reluctant and precautious; and it’s our task to beat their fear and make them feel safe and included through open communication, honesty and empathy.

Building a strong school community is an absolute must for a successful reopening. Now more than ever, we have to work together with families to re-invent the play-based school of the post covid-19 era.

* John is Dorothy Snot preschool & kindergarten co-founder & Director

Running an urban play-based preschool in the era of the covid-19: Locking down, then re-opening. The aftermath.

by John Yiannoudis*

Our urban Athens play-based preschool & kindergarten was locked down, as all Greek schools, in March 10, 2020. And then, after 82 days of mandatory closure we re-opened in June 1st, having the 80% of kids back within first week.

Is it still the same school? or is it a different one?

The lockdown

It is widely known that Greece was one of the very first countries to shutdown schools due to covid-19 fear. And it proved to be a wise decision.

All schools in the country closed suddenly on Wednesday March 11, on a half-day notice. It was really shocking for all & especially for parents. No need to mention, some days later the whole country entered a full lockdown.

From day one, all we school people set two main goals: not lose touch with the children and the families and not let our team spirit go down. We had no idea if or when to reopen, but we had to keep school operating as normal as possible, up to then. Therefore, there was only one option available: to turn school virtual.

To operate a play-based preschool & kindergarten through zoom, gotomeeting, youtube & edmodo, sounds like a joke! But not, when you know what you are doing and why you are doing it.

We should be insane to believe that physical play in school’s mud hole could be replaced by zoom’ segmented screen; but that was the only alternative, so we had to make it work; and in order to work for kids, it had to work first for the adults. Teachers had to feel secure & enthusiast for their job and parents trust our honest intention to help and work together in order to give children the best possible school substitute.

We spent almost a month experimenting with every possible resource & idea. I remember, in March I was attending numbers of education webinars held in US and everyone was saying “oh my God, I have no idea what will work for my kids”!

Immediately became clear that children much loved the moving picture instead of pdfs and ppts. So, teachers started recording videos with their quarantine life, indoor play & new project ideas and kept sending them to families; and families were challenged to respond and share their home videos & photos with class community. This way, a nice dialogue began through email, edu platforms and fb groups.

By late March we added the zoom sessions. Whole classes for a start, then splitting into two, three or more subgroups; one-to-one sessions when needed; lots of discussions with parents; teachers even started paying personal home visits using school bus when it became legal. We had to assist families send their stress away in all possible ways.

To make the long story short, by the end of the lockdown period we had developed a complicated distance learning model, properly adjusted for each different age group (we run 11 classes, from babies to kindergarten) and based on every single class’ specific needs.

Emphasis naturally was given in play as deriving from this new quarantine reality. The big data had been very supportive for our approach, as more of the 85% of school families remained actively involved in this lockdown-forced distant way of operation. And then, on May 24, the Greek government announced that schools should reopen on June 1st.

The re-opening

Re-opening the school was a big challenge. New procedures had to be drawn, social distancing to apply, significant modifications in school infrastructure to be done and everyone to learn the new rules. Not so easy for the adults – but proved quite easy for the children!

The big change for the community was that parents do not get in school any more, while it operates. They deliver and pick kids up, at the gate; for Dorothy Snot parents, used for years to get in and out daily on a free will basis and feel school like home, this sounded hard. But in practice gave us no reason to worry.

We re-confirmed that a community can effectively transform and adjust to change, if only its’ members understand and agree on a major goal. And in this unforeseen era, the major goal is to maintain a school full of health but still providing lots of play opportunities & joy for the children.

Obviously, the arrival procedure is a completely new one. Everybody’s temperature is measured at the gate and then all have to walk through a mandatory path for washing hands etc. But we made it looking like fun and children loved this new condition.

We intentionally keep the gate wide open in the morning, so parents may stay outside for a while and make sure their child enters the school and goes to class, happy; children are now really eager to leave parents and move in to meet their already enjoying friends, without asking for one last hug or one last kiss (this could take hours, before!).

Inside school, we have divided classes so none is operating with more than 15 children and maintaining no contact between sub teams during the day; Athens’ summer weather really helps as most of the classes spend half of their day in the school yards.

Segmented classes, fewer activities compared to before, more time in the yard and more time for non-directed play: a “new school” evolves & kids love it! Ok, they still can’t play ball, mingle big time or go to the forest (going out of the school is yet prohibited) but all have perfectly adjusted to this new treaty, love it & take it one step further every single day.

Every single day we see our school operating again in a fully play-based approach, other than before. Play takes place in smaller groups and in segregated space – but still is freely chosen, non-directed by adults, intrinsically motivated; some times even more than the pre-covid19 era!

The aftermath

We re-confirmed that when a big change comes, we have to be quick to mentally accept it. People normally resist to change and this resistance delays evolution; but life evolves on change.

We confirmed that we must stick to our values, our plan & our people while adjusting to any new imposed reality. Our school is play oriented – this is what we exceptionally do and this is what we encouraged during all this strange period: enabling play to evolve under a new & unforeseen condition.

Children proved ready to adapt change and they are really born to innovate. The new covid-19 situation created lots of stress for the families and this initially affected kids; but as soon as we adults accepted the new treaty and our confidence started to rebuild, children easily regained the lead of their life and their play.

The bottom line: we observe a new school evolving, day by day. It is always a play-based school, sometimes even more than before, but it is different. Children repossesed the ownership of their school life, adjusted their play into the new careful reality and keep innovating big time. We move on day-by-day, constantly evaluating results and preparing for the next unexpected.

Kids are now in the lead and create a new play-based model, so same and so different than before. We stay back to observe, respect their needs, trust their capabilities and provide the settings that will allow them to flourish and explore this real “new world” in full enthusiasm and joy; this is what life-derived learning still is all about in the covid-19 era!

 

* John is Dorothy Snot preschool & kindergarten co-founder & Director

Playing in a Mercedes Benz

One of the basic aspects in life-derived learning is to allow children discover the real world, through play. Because children, when given the power to choose, always transfer their play into reality.

One of our pre-k classes developed a genuine interest on how cars work! They talked about cars, read about cars, saw movies, played with toys, even constructed fake cars in various forms .

Were these enough? Of course not! Children went on asking more & more things, so we had to give them the chance to see a place where a car is born…

Unfortunately, in Greece we do not have a single car making factory. However, we do have many car import and repair companies and Mercedes Benz Hellas proved so willing to let our children visit their premises, ask questions and even play in their cars!

Children came back in school full of enthusiasm. Because it is not what you learn in such a visit – it is how it makes you feel; and our pre-Ks returned in school feeling as great as any of us after having played in a Mercedes Benz!

Recycle & reuse

In school we talk a lot about the environment and the future of our planet. It is crucial to turn children caring & protecting, from very very early.

Veronica” pre-K class entered this year a recycle & reuse project. They visited, some months ago, DOANYS industry in Athens that recycles paper and learned all about it. Returning to school, they decided to assume the responsibility of collecting the scrap paper from all classes.

When gathered some bags of scrap, they visited again the same recycle factory. Delivered what they collected and attended, hands-on, their garbage turning into paper to reuse.

Since they delivered a dozen of big bags, factory’s manager handed them the 1st recycling prize! Now, they will prepare for the Olympics….

 

We do not cook to learn, but we learn so much while cooking in toddlers’ class!

Cooking is one of kids most favorable activities in school. Apart from being a great life-derived play, cooking assists toddlers to get acquainted with a good number of skills.

Getting in touch with math, for example, in the age of 2.5 y.o is greatly achieved through cooking. Children start to understand what does it mean “two spoonful of sugar” or “4 eggs”.

Their fine motor skills also are greatly enhanced, as well as their decision making skills. “Which goes first, the oil or the cheese?” The purpose is not to give them answers, but encourage them to think for themselves.

As it always goes on play: we do not cook to learn, but we learn so much while cooking!

“What is in a TV?”

Everyday, children bring in school questions and ideas arising from their own life. For example, they all have in home displays and other IT equipment but hardly ever have the chance to find out how do those things look, from inside.

So, whenever this question comes in school, and the truth is it comes quite often, we just give them old pieces of HW and screwdrivers, to find out on their own. It’s always so much fun!

Transferring play into real life conditions

We do offer a DIY class in kindergarten, in order to introduce 6 y.o. children into creative thinking & problem solving attitude.

For example: by  constructing a hydraulic robotic arm from scratch, children transfer their play into real life conditions by engaging in the following. They:

  • Derive the plan
  • Measure the dimensions
  • Cut the wood
  • Trial and error to make the junctions work
  • Understand how the hydraulic pumps work
  • Team & coordinate to make the arm move in all three dimensions

While the above consist the most fascinating play, yet encourage children to develop numbers of skills and engage deeply into creative thinking and innovation.

But most of all it’s just freely selected & non-directed play. Adults do not direct or impose, only inspire and facilitate. It’s not by coincidence that, when such a project is over,  children rarely play with the outcome. They have enjoyed most playing during the construction!

Through the eyes of Riddhi

by Riddhi Nandola*

From my experience, at Dorothy Snot, I can truly say it is an exceptional school. From the first moment to the last, my time spent there was incredible. My first interaction with the school was my walk up to the building and seeing the bright and colorfully painted exterior giving it a feel of welcoming and warmth. Little did I know that the teachers and children would be just as, if not more, kind and welcoming.

My entire classroom was filled with happy and active children. The joy contained by these children was in part due to the extraordinary effort put in by the teachers. I saw first hand the work they put into making the days for the children not only fun but an effective and creative way of learning. The time these teachers spend with the children in school is only half the energy they put into making the school days a good time. They spend a lot of their time out of school preparing lessons and activities for the children.

The school is known for its “play-based” learning, which is a great way for children to absorb as much material as well as expel all the pent-up energy in them. From reading & writing to yoga and outdoor education, the children have a vast amount of opportunities to learn.

The school offers multiple different classes from English to Art, to Outdoor Education. The students are grouped off into their respective classes where they are able to participate in the class and then rotate into another class. This allows the children to interact with the teachers more, thus giving more attention to them, which is always a positive for younger children. Following these lessons, the children are involved in a free play which allows them to be creative while also subconsciously discovering more about their selves.

Overall, the school is designed and includes teachers that allow the children to grow up to be well rounded and kind individuals.

 

* Riddhi, a student from Canada, became part of our our school during May and June 2018, while participating in AIESEC’s “International Kindergarten” exchange program

Small talk over art class

Kindergarten kids enter into small talk over art class, trying to arrange who is attending who’s party over the weekend!
Allowing children to take full ownership of their school life, is always a huge boost for their confidence. Our kindergarten kids feel completely free to talk and discuss in class over all issues affecting their social life. Art class time is a great opportunity for that!

(you may not be able to understand Greek, but you will surely enjoy the following video!)