Social-emotional learning is one of the most important things that schools provide to students, and as experts weighed in on the reopening debate, it was one of the primary reasons they advocated for getting students back into the classroom ASAP. But as several districts across Colorado prepare to start remotely, kids may need to find different ways to fill the gaps in their social lives normally filled by daily face-to-face interaction with their peers.
According to June Gruber, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, it may not be too difficult.
“There are multiple avenues that we learn and acquire information about emotions and can promote social-emotional development in youth,” Gruber said. “These are opportunities children often have in the classroom, but we can continue to cultivate outside the classroom.”
The Denver Post spoke with parents and educators to get tips on how they are integrating socialization into their children’s lives this fall.
Leverage digital platforms
José Ramón Lizárraga, assistant professor of learning sciences and human development at CU Boulder, studies how young people and teachers use digital platforms to learn and to connect with one another.
Video games — long reviled by parents — actually can go a long way to making youth feel part of a peer community, he said, especially those that are played live in real time with other players, such as Animal Crossing or Minecraft.
“One of the things many of us are challenging or questioning is that face-to-face or sharing of physical space is the only way to be social,” he said. “In their everyday activities, young people are already using digital technology to engage socially.”
He’s not just referring to kids old enough to be on social media. Durango mom Whitnie Stopani has a 5-year-old son named Lucca who uses the app Marco Polo to send videos back and forth with his friends. She called it “equivalent to texting, but for children.”
Faylyn Emma, a high school teacher at the virtual school Colorado Connections Academy, said her students often spend up to six hours a day online completing coursework. They’re familiar with platforms like Zoom, so allowing them to use video chat to host a virtual party or card game can offer a welcome change of pace, she said.
Dino Reyes, dean of culture at Lake Middle School in Denver, used to host school-wide assemblies that focused on a value or virtue and celebrated students who exhibited those values. He plans to take the concept virtual this year with a YouTube series he hopes will help bring students together online.
“Basically think of ‘Sesame Street’ or ‘Yo Gabba Gabba’ — a modern, urban version of that,” Reyes said.
Create a trusted friend “bubble”
Despite his support for digital platforms, Lizárraga said they are no replacement for face-to-face socialization.
“In an ideal world, we’d be doing both things,” he said.
Evergreen resident Laura Cence has two high schoolers who sacrificed social gatherings when schools closed abruptly in March. Sam, 16, and Charlie, 17, play in the orchestra and jazz bands, respectively, at Conifer High School and also formed their own rock band with several friends.
In early June, when they wanted to get the band back together, Cence said she conferred with the other kids’ parents to ensure they were all on the same page. The band now practices in Cence’s basement and has developed what she called a “friend bubble.”
“We know the families really well, and we know that all of us have been very, very careful,” she said. “It’s been about trusting families.”Stopani agrees. Because her now-4-month-old daughter was born during the pandemic, other families have been understanding of her need to be cautious. Many in her bubble, including Stopani, have been tested for COVID-19. They adhere to safety protocols like washing the toys their kids play with and keeping a thermometer on hand to take temperatures.
“Whenever we are having in-person interaction (Lucca, the 5-year-old) is pretty wild at the start of it,” Stopani said. “But he’s great about wearing his mask.”
Because of the way COVID-19 is transmitted person to person, experts advise that groups spend as much time outside as possible. Luckily, Colorado is not short on pleasant weather or outdoor activities.
Stopani and her family moved to a new house with a backyard so they could have friends over to watch movies on the back porch or play video games together, but still 6 feet apart.
No matter the medium, Lizárraga encourages families to center play time around fun. That may seem obvious, but it’s important to remember especially in uncertain times.
“It allows kids to, in many ways, start imagining or putting themselves in a magical world where the world is not so messed up as it is right now,” he said.