The thought of remote teaching during the pandemic filled me with dread.
How would I engage 25 children contained in digital boxes? How would they learn when we could not be physically together?
And I’m not going to lie - to begin with it was tough, very tough. Once I started a meeting to find one child bouncing on a trampoline whilst eating a baguette and another who had turned their video off and changed their name to ‘Reconnecting’. It was clear that I would need to do something more to gain their attention, and fast!
Digital drama but not as you know it
It was around this time that I was lucky enough to discover Creation Theatre’s new digital learning venture - Home Delivery, when my daughter signed up to take part in their sessions.
I had been to see Creation Theatre’s in-person shows before and enjoyed their site-responsive productions and their imaginative approach to portraying classic stories. The organisation is one of the largest producers of theatre in Oxford and also runs drama classes for children and young people in term time after school and in the holidays.
They pivoted their business model and developed online drama classes for children, all based around different classic stories. My seven-year-old daughter’s first session was Treasure Island and it was clear from the get-go that Creation had thought hard about how to play to the strengths of a digital platform.
Within a very active session, my daughter was hiding from a ‘black spot’ which magically appeared on the screen, using her imagination to create her own pirate name and interacting with other children as they virtually passed treasure to each other.
The company used a combination of technical wizardry including sound effects and picture overlays, along with fun games and activities, to ensure that children were actively engaged throughout.
This was certainly not children sitting staring like zombies at the screen as I had pictured previously when anyone mentioned ‘remote learning’. My daughter felt like she had been on an adventure on the high seas and all from the comfort of her own home.
Orange juice and giant peas
I began to incorporate the ideas I observed watching my daughter participate within my own remote teaching. During our study of ‘weather around the world’, we had been reading Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and I began to play around with the settings on our learning platform.
By using a green screen and adding a virtual background, we were able to create our own weather reports of falling food, from seas of orange juice to hailstorms of giant peas.
The enthusiasm from the children was immediately evident and some had even gone to the effort of making their own YouTube videos complete with backgrounds and introductory theme tunes.
These effects were really enhanced by the digital setting and would have been difficult to achieve in the same way in the classroom.
Many people were delighted to be back in school and to put remote teaching behind them when we were allowed to return to our classrooms. However, it showed me that digital learning can be incredibly inspiring and exciting and that there are opportunities to develop children’s imagination and confidence beyond the walls of the classroom.
I missed the creative challenge and innovation I had discovered with online learning so when an opportunity arose to join the Creation Theatre digital learning team, I leapt at the chance.
Learning digitally has had a huge impact on my daughter. Before the pandemic, her school had raised that she may be on the autistic spectrum. Social situations caused her anxiety, and out of school clubs made her worried about how she should behave.
When she started sessions with Home Delivery, we saw immediately that the digital set up suited her. She was in her own home where she knew the space and could find help if she needed it.
She was encouraged to engage and speak to the group, but from behind the safety of a computer screen and with leaders who understood her needs. Over time, her confidence has grown, and it is hard to believe she is the same child when I see her screaming full pelt at the screen as one of Henry V’s ferocious knights!
We are only at the beginning of understanding how online learning can benefit neurologically diverse children. Barriers that can be triggers for autistic children are removed with home access and the highly physical, energetic nature of the sessions lends itself well to children with ADHD.
It’s not only neurologically diverse children who benefit from extracurricular activities delivered at home.
A high prevalence of children with ASD or ADHD will have a parent with a similarly diverse brain, which can lead to anxiety about the travel and logistics associated with in-person events, or a struggle with executive function required to get multiple children to the right place at the right time.
One mum shared with me recently that while her daughter has rarely missed a Home Delivery session where she is emailed a reminder 10 minutes before with a link, she misses swimming lessons most weeks through either totalling forgetting or taking so long getting organised to leave the house it ends up not being worth going.
Rigour and transparency
A challenge and ultimately a benefit, of delivering sessions to children in their homes is the level of transparency to parents. Experience of teaching children in a room has taught me that even during the most engaging lessons you can easily lose a child to daydreaming, picking at their shoe or re-styling another child’s hair.
Any lapse of engagement online is visible to the parent so effective sessions must be prepped and tested with rigour.
It’s similar to the pioneering approach used by Sesame Street with the Children’s Television Workshop. Episodes would be watched by children under test conditions and only episodes that maintained their focus 80-90% of the time would be aired. At Creation Theatre this translates into a continual process of evaluation and adaptation after every session we deliver.
Any activity which is failing to achieve high engagement levels is refined or removed.
The knock-on benefit of developing creativity in children is continual innovation for us as a team. Achieving engagement within a home environment comes with a whole new world of possibilities.
Scavenger hunts, den building, makeshift costumes and puppeteering toys provide children with a way to merge their own world with the world of the story we’re looking at each week.
And of course, there are many star-turns from pets just as you would expect from any remote learning scenario. Even my angry cat has been known to make a cameo appearance as a noble steed!
Sarah Headen works part-time as a teacher at Ridgeway CE Primary School in Oxfordshire and is the Education Manager at Creation Theatre.