The role of movement in Virtual Learning

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As families navigate virtual learning, parents are now on the front lines of observing and guiding children in gathering around a screen. It’s easy to assume that successful engagement with this screen should be sedentary — likely because that’s what working behind a screen entails for most of us adults. However, a child’s engagement in virtual learning may not be sedentary, nor should it be framed that way to begin with. If your child is moving around during a live lesson presented online, it is not a sign that they are struggling to focus. It is usually a sign that they are doing exactly what they should be doing — learning through movement!

Children are wired to move — both in respect to those bigger motions that support gross motor development and maximum effort, but also with respect to those precise movements that support fine motor development and hands-on learning. The assumption that children must be still to learn is not unique to the virtual realm and can also be found in mainstream classrooms where children are expected to sit at their desks for extended periods. In these cases, the importance of movement is vastly underestimated and being sedentary is seen as a prerequisite for learning, to the extent that movement is typically reserved for recess – as if it is nothing more than a “break” from learning.

In Montessori, however, movement is highly valued as a crucial driver of children’s academic development. It is not seen as an escape from learning; it is seen as the opposite — an essential gateway to deeper learning.

“It is high time that movement came to be regarded from a new point of view in educational theory.” — Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Still, it can be challenging to support movement at home in this new dynamic. How do we as parents know what successful engagement looks like with respect to a virtual school?

Lisa Kathleen, AMI-Montessori Educator, coach and trainer, has been at the forefront of developing programming for Guidepost Montessori Virtual School — which now supports nearly 1,000 families across the U.S. with live classroom sessions and quarterly home delivery of hands-on Montessori materials. She shares her wisdom, below, on how important it is to embrace movement in any kind of virtual learning program, and how parents can navigate some of the tricky scenarios that might arise when children log on.

How should parents frame their expectations of successful engagement in a virtual learning program, if we know that sitting still is not necessarily the right indicator?

First, it shouldn’t fall entirely on parents to frame successful engagement. That framing should be actively supported by the educators delivering the program. That said, it is important on the front end for parents to selectively choose a virtual program that does value concepts of movement and concrete learning. (See “What to Look for in a Virtual Learning Program” for early childhood and elementary.)

Virtual learning Montessori-style reflects what we see in the brick and mortar classroom; the work should be as physical as possible. Children under the age of 12 are concrete thinkers, moving more and more towards the abstract. So, the goal is to first give a concrete impression of a concept or process with a guided presentation, and then to pair that experience with follow-up work that invites further hands-on experience where the child can work in the world around them, actively exploring the concept. 

Now, virtual learning is inevitably different to some extent. Children in our Guidepost classrooms are spending a significant portion of their day in motion, moving freely. Engagement with a screen tends to invite a higher degree of being still because, logistically, one has to be a certain distance from and certain angle to the device in order to view things properly. However, our virtual Montessori guides have a high tolerance for movement because we recognize that children learn better when they are moving — and we recognize that even adults don’t do well in the same position for many hours a day. A child’s virtual guide will not only have a sensitivity to this but will intentionally plans lessons that ask the child to do something.

In the classroom or with homeschooling, it is usually obvious when a child has been given too much freedom and a limit needs to be set because the child will be doing something they shouldn’t, such as mis-using a learning material in a way that may damage it.  In a virtual program, if we allow the child to move and interact more freely, how do we as parents know when to intervene with guidance and limits?

  1. For example, what if my child has left the room entirely?
    In this scenario, parents should connect with the child’s guide to work together and determine if that is acceptable behavior for that particular child. It is possible that leaving the room may indicate that the lesson is too long, or not interesting enough, or that the child isn’t being effectively engaged by the guide–but it’s also possible that this behavior is perfectly acceptable for that child.

    If the class period is too long for a particular child, this is not necessarily a negative thing. If you have a 2- or 3-year old who has the option of attending a 90-minute interaction, they may be perfectly happy with first 20 to 30 minutes, gain a ton from that experience and have that be enough to then absorb, process and work with that lesson on their own. Some children that we work with rarely sit through an entire virtual class period, but the guides are comfortable with it because the child is learning and acting on what they’ve learned. Flexibility and individualization remain key, just as they are in the brick and mortar classroom. Engagement in virtual school will not be one-size-fits-all!
  2. My child is choosing to use a material that has nothing to do with the guide’s live lesson.
    One thing to think about here is that Montessori said we should never interrupt a child’s work. If a child is deeply engaged in meaningful work, that work is considered sacred by the Montessori guide, because that deep engagement builds the child’s concentration, persistence, and other crucial executive function skills. Even in our early childhood classrooms, a guide would not stop a child’s chosen work to give a presentation. On the other hand, because an online class is likely to be shorter, if a child becomes engaged in another work, we may have a tendency to worry that they might be missing out on the class. We should not worry about this! Since our big picture goal is to inspire concentration and deep engagement with work, the ideal action in this situation is to honor and encourage the child’s chosen work.

    Even if the child is engaged in something else, it is likely that the child is hearing the information that the guide is presenting, for example, about caring for plants and washing leaves. On another day, the child may want to choose that activity and you may see them later washing plant leaves. As a parent, your role is to prepare the materials so that they can be successful if and when they do want to take up the activity presented, but it doesn’t need to be rushed or forced.

    Another consideration, especially if the child is moving in non-purposeful ways, is whether, when prompted to engage by the guide, the child is able to respond and is clearly showing that they are absorbing the information. They may be absorbing the information while they are moving and may even be better able to process the information when in motion. This is especially true if the child has been sedentary for a long time otherwise.
  3. My child is talking over the virtual guide and frequently interrupting. 
    This scenario is a great opportunity to look at how we can incorporate “Grace and Courtesy” in a virtual space. How do we continue to teach social etiquette in a way that works in an online platform? Online, the guide has an obligation to use the mute button as needed – but not to overuse it. Just as in real life, this type of community social skills develop over time and with practice. Especially around age 4, it’s a big time for interrupting and children at this age have to really practice not interrupting. So, you may find that the guide has to mute everyone in order to create a dynamic that works. She will slowly build in more time for interactions so that each child does have a chance to speak, and an opportunity to practice waiting their turn to speak, as well! It’s a combination of modeling expectations, and then reinforcing those expectations.

In sum, many of the ways we will see our children move and interact apart from the screen are not to be thought of as distractions to their learning, but rather as building blocks to their learning. The goal is not to entice our children to sit still and be quiet in order to focus — not in a classroom at a desk or at home on a computer. The goal remains the same: to inspire a lifelong love of learning that is rooted in meaningful connection to the real world. Nurturing this deeper connection is bigger, bolder, louder, and messier than we might think! 

Guidepost Montessori is a a global network of schools serving 3,500+ families with early education programs, including Emergency Care for Essential Workers (ECEW) during the COVID-19 crisis. Looking for more free content? Download Guidepost Parent from the App Store for personalized Montessori inspiration and activities.

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