Credit: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

A spirited 5-year-old, Ella Whalen squirmed away from her laptop every chance she got during Zoom kindergarten this year. One day when her mother, Christine, left the kitchen for a moment, the tyke sneaked out of the room and left a Cookie Monster stuffed animal in her chair to hoodwink her teacher.

The wiggly little girl also rarely did homework because staring at the screen took too much of a toll on her. That’s why Whalen wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her daughter may have some catching up to do before she begins 1st grade.

“She missed out on some learning with Zoom,” said the Oakland mother of one, a lawyer who has worked from home while supervising Ella’s distance learning. “It’s hard to quantify since I don’t have an older child and therefore the ability to know what the typical kindergarten experience is.”

Given how many kindergartners struggled with remote learning this year and the many families who opted out of kindergarten during the pandemic, experts say it’s likely a lot of children might need to play catch-up this summer before heading into 1st grade in the fall. Learning loss is expected to affect younger students and low-income students the most, research suggests.

“No doubt many, possibly most, kids didn’t make the gains they would have made in school,” said Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early education expert. “Teachers at every grade will likely find a broader distribution of skill levels when kids get back to school than they are used to because children’s learning experiences this year vary so much more than they usually do.”

Whalen, for her part, is planning to help her daughter bone up on some math and reading skills this summer, but she is most concerned about Ella missing out on social and emotional learning, which is crucial for this age group.

“Mostly I want her to have a fun summer,” Whalen said. “She’s registered for summer camp, and I want her to play and be outside with other kids.”

That’s on track with what many experts recommend to pave the way for learning in the early grades. Particularly now, when many children are coping with the emotional fallout of a year of anxiety and isolation, what some need most of all is a chance to make up for lost socialization time. Many young children are showing signs of social and emotional difficulties due to the pandemic, research shows.

“Many parents will find themselves wondering if their child is academically ready for 1st grade, and they may overlook the more pivotal question: ‘Is my child emotionally and socially ready for 1st grade?’” said Kimberly DeMille, past president of the California Kindergarten Association. “I have always been a proponent of giving the gift of time to our young learners: They have their whole lives ahead of them and only a fraction of it to be a child. Playing and learning through play is a child’s work.”

While some students may benefit from tutoring or summer school classes, teachers say, others may just need a breather, a chance to relax and recharge after a year of restriction and uncertainty.

“My advice to parents who either refrained from enrolling in kindergarten or had a child who struggled with online learning is to give the child the gift of play and social interactions that are crucial to emotional stability and strength,” DeMille said. “When this foundation is in place, a child will be ready to focus on the academic challenges of 1st grade and beyond.”

Harnessing the joy of learning is vital because research shows that 90% of brain development occurs before a child starts kindergarten. What children learn through play, experts say, they are far more likely to remember.

“When kids learn through play, it is high interest, low stress. Who wouldn’t want to learn if they are having fun?” said Janet Amato, who teaches 1st grade at Laurel Elementary in San Mateo. “When children are engaged and are using all their different modalities, they retain what they are learning better.”

While kindergarten isn’t mandatory in California, some say that missing it can make some kids fall behind their peers, particularly those in low-income families.

One way to catch up is summer school, which may also provide much-needed peer interaction, a pillar of social-emotional learning many see as foundational before academic learning can occur.

However, some teachers feel that summer school may be best suited to older children, pointing out that there’s a lot that parents can do at home to set the stage for academic success. That’s why missing kindergarten doesn’t matter as much for children who get a lot of intellectual enrichment at home.

In fact, simply having books in your house promotes literacy, research suggests. Unfortunately, the pandemic put so much pressure on parents, studies show, that many had less time and energy to read with their children.

“It’s less of an issue for kids from backgrounds in which they are receiving a lot of support at home, who will likely catch up,” said Philip Fisher, an expert in early childhood development at the University of Oregon. “It’s more of a concern for subgroups in which structural inequalities existed historically and have grown wider during the pandemic.”

There’s also a lot that parents can do at home to make sure that children are prepared for 1st grade. For example, children get a real boost from reading a book while snuggled on your lap.

Young children who associate reading with warm and fuzzy feelings, experts say, develop a love of reading that transcends academic benchmarks. You can spur even more learning by talking about the story as you go along, asking your child open-ended questions about the narrative and letting them actively engage with the material.

“If parents do only one thing routinely to get their children ready for 1st grade, reading every day, a variety of books, would be it,” said Seena Hawley, executive director of the Berkeley Baby Book Project, an advocacy group. “Make reading an adventure, not just an assignment.”

Getting out into nature is another key recommendation. Research suggests that exercise helps improve a child’s memory, concentration and overall ability to learn.

“We have all sat too long and have spent way too much time in front of screens,” Amato said. “Go outside and play, visit museums, zoos, relatives you may have not seen for a while. Talk with your child, do fun science experiments, grow a garden.”

The goal is to spark a love of learning that can keep a child engaged in developing their cognitive skills in and out of the classroom. In the early grades, children are forming lifelong attitudes about school that can set them up for success or failure in the future.

“Read, play, talk, sing, write stories, explore the outdoors, create art,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University. “The big things are deep and broad and can be learned in everyday activities — language, math, social skills, self-regulation.”

To home in on specific academic skills, such as math, many suggest looking for playful ways to highlight number skills, such as playing board games that involve counting and measuring out ingredients for a favorite recipe.

Mastering the alphabet might involve tracing letters with your finger or a popsicle stick in a baking sheet full of shaving cream. Kids love making a mess, so writing the letters, smoothing it out and then doing it all again is as much play as it is a pre-literacy exercise. You might also let the child pick out a sparkly glitter pen to practice their printing or use chalk on the sidewalk to mix it up.

Joy is what keeps kids plugging away at a new skill. Particularly after a grueling year of distance learning, experts say, it’s important to keep children engaged and stimulated.

“If parents believe they need to work with their child in math or literacy, my strong suggestion is to make it fun,” Stipek said. “If they force their child to engage in activities that they don’t want to do, they could end up doing more harm than good.”

That’s a lesson Whalen learned all too well during Zoom school. The takeaway is to avoid making learning seem like a chore.

“Fun is the key. School, for the most part, was not fun this year, and I saw how Ella rejected that,” Whalen said. “Hendrik, my fiance, likes to do ‘math time’ with Ella when they ride bikes, and he gives her problems like, ‘If you have five elephants and they join seven zebras, how many animals are there?’ She likes the playful nature of the challenge.”

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