When Michael’s, the famous chain store for all things crafting across North America, announced that they were going to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt a multitude of things.
Shock was not one of them. Gratitude, yes. Because I had a three-year-old being kept at home from school, and I knew that hands-on, creative learning was not only going to keep her entertained but keep her sanity as well. If anything, others during the end of March felt the same, as our local branch of the craft store chain was filled with other shoppers, grabbing paint kits, armfuls of yarn, and other supplies full of brightness and colors that could be shaped into something using the imagination of humans stuck in one place for a set amount of time.
My home state, Illinois, had one of the harshest rule sets for our stay at home order. Schools were closed, in order to keep the virus from spreading to different populations, making all learning confined to home for all students. This made perfect sense for us here, as anyone who has worked in a school has a story about how rapidly a disease like flu or strep can spread in a closed population, whether it is a kindergarten Montessori or a high school PE class. Playgrounds were also closed too, as we were unsure about how long the virus lingered on swingsets and slides. Of course, museums and libraries were shuttered as well: have you seen how germy children’s museums can get?
To say this stay-at-home mandate made our last few months at home a challenge is one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever made, as either an educator or as a parent. I’m joined in by many other voices who have stated similar concerns, including the American Pediatric Association that children need school. Unlike other parents, I run into many strands of luck that have created a rope of survival for me: I was not furloughed or laid off, I have a supportive spouse who could tag-team watching and schooling our daughter when I needed to answer emails and get on Zoom meetings, and this was the time of year I needed to focus on writing grants anyway.
Also, my background as an out of school educator seemed to snap it together faster than I thought previously possible. In addition to serving as a museum educator and manager, my research as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois focused on how students learned when they were outside of the traditional classroom. Understanding how people educated themselves—and each other—when they were in a museum or park setting was crucial to my professional research, and the backbone of my current work as a director for a STEM education department at a massive nonprofit.
I had a three-year-old being kept at home from school, and I knew that hands-on, creative learning was not only going to keep her entertained but keep her sanity as well.
Although my normal out-of-school learning environments, namely museums and state parks, for my daughter and the students I worked with were gone due to Illinois rightfully closing them off, I began identifying things to make. After all, many of the projects that we love when we engage in informal learning are often rooted in creation, ranging from art projects to science experiments that end in fun explosions. I also chose this time to focus on fine motor skills for my preschool-aged child. For children, this need to create something during the shelter-in-place order required many to dig into creative aspects that normally, they didn’t have time to test or try. Things that required patience, practice, and time. These are not qualities readily stressed on in the modern American classroom, which focuses on tests and quantitative performance to show student growth.
There was no set curriculum for my preschooler, as I am not her teacher and my specialty is not within early childhood education. Furthermore, I used this time to focus on what I could, as I still needed to work: grants needed to be written, emails composed, communications delivered. So, I set up stations around my house for my daughter—if she couldn’t go to the children’s museum or Montessori classroom, the museum and classroom would instead come to her in this unprecedented time of the pandemic.
One corner of our kitchen table was a cavalcade of art supplies, including paints, glue, construction paper, and scissors. Another corner in our living room was a counting area: a place filled with cloth clocks, numbers, and formats for my preschooler to add and subtract. Her bedroom became a library and home for all of her snuggly dolls and stuffed animals, which I purposefully set up to increase association with calming activities that would hopefully help her garner sleep at night.
So creating this hands-on fun could be—and was—done. Not just by myself, but other parents and caretakers did so at this time as well. If you looked on any of your social media during our many different versions of the shelter-in-place order, I’m sure you saw plenty of study-at-home youth of all ages. They were baking. They were painting. They were gathering things outside, bringing them in, and making their own fun, when they could. I will not deny that many of us sought refuge in online games and tablets, adults and children alike.
Humans, we love making things with our hands. It is one of our defining characteristics as a species.
For myself and my daughter, I let her lead in her interests, a focus of learning that many child psychologists suggest, especially for children that are going through traumatic or challenging times, as all of us were this spring. I’m fortunate in this case that my daughter was used to the Montessori method of learning, in which children complete learning tasks independently and at their own pace. Like most students at home during the outbreak, my daughter was given a series of skills to master and complete: learning numbers, telling time, and practicing fine motor skills.
Humans, we love making things with our hands. It is one of our defining characteristics as a species. We marvel when we find ancient items created by distant ancestors, from tiny sculptures to fishing hooks, found throughout the world. Finding creativity is one of the defining features that has been insisted on by many health professionals and educators for both brain development and social-emotional growth. These characteristics were especially crucial as kids found themselves without their teachers, friends, and out of school programs as schools were shuttered and learning became remote.
Seeing what was happening around our world now, I not only threw together a rudimentary STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) informal learning environment for my daughter but for other youth for whom my program served as well. I did this by taking this experience, writing it out, and working with my co-workers to deliver an online program for hundreds of youth participants in the summer of 2020 while the pandemic still rages across the world. This also includes an opportunity to use this experience of making to explore some of my older research experiences with archaeology, which ended with a partnership with National Geographic.
If there is one part of advice I can garner from any of this experience, even as some schools open and others stay shelter-in-place, it is this: give yourself and especially your children a break. Do you stress and fret and strain when they’re learning and engaging in a museum exhibit, or are you encouraging them to make and explore? This pandemic will end someday, as will your children’s youth. It is a hard time for all, give them a bit of creativity, and yourself as well. Maybe you can even paint with them as well.
At least I have.