Virtual reality: Tiny tots face the brunt of the Covid lockdown

Recently, a video of a Kashmiri girl appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reduce the load of online classes went viral. The six-year-old complained to ‘Modi Saab’ about the long study hours and homework. She rattled off the subjects which small children have to study in a day. The adorable complaint was shared by many on social media and also caught the attention of LG Manoj Sinha, who directed the education department to make a policy to reduce the burden of homework for tiny tots. Sinha had tweeted: “...childhood innocence is a gift of God, and their days should be lively, full of joy and bliss.” But that’s not how it has been for little ones who started their schooling during the pandemic. Instead, online classes have wreaked havoc on innocent childhood.

Zooming in

Komal and Vikas Panchal were over the moon to secure a nursery seat for their only daughter, Dimyra, in a reputed school in the Capital in January 2020. Two months later, the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed.

Dimyra, who was brimming with excitement to join the school and make new friends, had to settle with a 14-inch screen to meet and greet her class teacher. She attended school for a day but refused after that. No amount of mollycoddling could make her log in to the online classes. “It has been a year and a half since her first day in April 2020. But my daughter did not log in to join her class. She was promoted to KG in this academic session in absentia,” says Vikas, hoping that someday there would be physical schooling, and Dimyra would experience the joy of school life.

The couple was not keen on withdrawing their child from school; it wasn’t an option the Panchals were keen to explore as it is difficult getting a seat again, especially in the nursery. “We have been paying the school fees for all these months only to retain the seat. We did not want to force our child to join classes. It is best to let her be,” says Komal.

Learning model 

Dimyra and her hapless parents are not alone in this struggle. “Adjusting to the new normal of online schooling is one of the most difficult conundrums for tiny tots, their parents and teachers, and even the school,” says Sonali Kumar, a school teacher from Navi Mumbai. One and a half years of virtual teaching has put a lot of pressure on teachers, who had to learn and unlearn a lot to stay relevant in the new normal. Unnati Bhojwani, a mother of a five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl, says, “My son’s school teachers in Senior KG put in a lot of effort to make learning fun for tiny tots. They included interesting activities such as origami, shadow play, coding, yoga and so on to retain the interest of children.”

The fatigue of online classes started reflecting in Bhojwani’s son sooner than expected. First, he would cringe at the mention of logging in for classes, would be fidgety throughout and then slowly started withdrawing himself from classes, making some alibi or the other. “The idea of interacting with teachers across the screen lost its sheen in just a few days because little ones are too young to understand the new learning model. Schools in a physical space come with a lot of freedom, and tiny tots are missing it. They want a physical presence. The new model has a bearing on their behaviour and also learning. They tend to get restless and impatient while sitting through classes, and we teachers feel helpless too,” adds Kumar.

Many parents are facing the same situation as the Bhojwanis and the Panchals. Padma Rewari, child counsellor and psychotherapist, says, “In the early years, the play-way method of teaching and learning works best. However, watching a screen and attending a virtual learning platform may not work with four or five-year-olds. It may cause restlessness and irritability, and a child may exhibit behavioural changes like throwing temper tantrums, excessive crying, disturbed sleep and so on. Parents have to understand that they are young and cannot set learning plans.”        

Slow but steady

New Delhi-based Pushp and Shruti Ranjan’s four-year-old daughter Amyra started her school virtually at an upmarket school this academic session. Initially, she had trouble sitting in front of the computer for three sessions of 40 minutes each but eventually started enjoying the new schedule. “The idea of school itself was new to her, and meeting a teacher across the screen was beyond her comprehension. However, she got used to it and started sitting in front of the computer without much persuasion, greeted her teachers, hummed her prayer song and even scribbled, coloured and painted,” says Shruti.

Mumbai-based primary class teacher Sanjana Kashyap agrees that online classes have pros and cons, and skipping them may not bode well for children. “Major brain development for tiny tots happens till about four or five years of age. So if there is a vacuum with regards to learning during this crucial period, then I’m afraid it could lead to children not developing up to their full potential. But, on the other hand, schools are equipped with the right curriculum and teaching practices to ensure the child grasps the content and does so in an interactive and fun manner,” says Kashyap.

Rewari couldn’t agree more with Kumar because “early childhood years is about exploring the surrounding and movement for a tiny tot, which unfortunately cannot happen on an online platform”. The situation becomes stressful even for small ones and more for the parents as they are worried what if the child misses out on his learning outcome. The online platform is not an option or an alternative for early childhood education. “Choices have to be given to children if they wish to be a part of it or not, and respect a child’s response. Don’t force a child,” says Rewari.

After a month, Amyra has adjusted to the idea of attending online classes, and her progress gladdens her parents. “It has introduced her to this school and classroom concept, albeit virtually. Unfortunately, the pandemic has limited her social interactions, and there are no means of recreation. We are glad that online classes give her a chance to meet others and interact with them,” says Pushp.

Way forward

The online learning model has its set of cons too, and that’s a heavy price to pay if calculated in terms of value. “It is the loss of childhood. They aren’t being allowed to explore (understandable why), which leads to experiential learning and forms a significant part of their childhood. They are developing anxiety because of being holed up inside and are stressed because of homework. My suggestion, let them be kids,” says Kashyap.

Children are waiting desperately to get back to offline classes. “Parents must talk to their children and listen to them patiently. They must involve children in some creative activities, not overburden them with too many online classes, hug them often and assure them that things would change, and soon,” advises Jyoti Agarwal, founder of Maa2Mom, a global community for mothers.

Rewari advises giving a home programme to parents and letting them build the skills without pressure. However, she cautions parents not to be ambitious. “A child missing out on a year of school is fine. However, the child’s mental health should be a top priority. Let’s remember they can’t express themselves through words. Watch out for burnout signs — anxiety, frustration and sadness — in tiny tots, and handle your child with kid gloves, quite literally,” she says, adding, “reach out to professionals for guidance and help if needed”.

Bhojwani, who has been a teacher, knows that getting back to physical schooling isn't happening anytime soon. However, she suggests that schools could limit school hours (not more than two hours for little ones), curtail the school syllabus and be more flexible in their teaching style. “It’s okay if we don’t teach them all. We know everything needs to be revisited in the next grade. Let children enjoy their time,” she adds.

So the next time you force your children to sit for the fourth class of the day, imagine yourself attending a two-hour-long office zoom meeting without a break and just let them be, quips Kashyap.

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