Lessons From Virtual Kindergarten

“Is today a school day or the weekend?” my son asks, burrowing under our covers at 7 in the morning.

“School,” I mumble.

“Real school, or görüntü school?” he asks.

“Video,” my wife says.

“Ugh,” he groans, and I do, too.

Our family was fortunate to have our kids attend in-person school this fall, but after the second Covid-19 wave crested during the Christmas holidays here in Toronto, we resumed the new year online. My daughter, who is in second grade, has taken to it remarkably well; she disappears into her room at 9 and emerges at 3:15, popping up for food and answers to “Harry Potter” trivia questions.

But her brother, who is 4, is a different story. He’s barely four months into kindergarten; his attention span is as tiny as his bladder. Like all his classmates, he needs constant adult supervision and assistance, which usually means me sitting by his side on the couch with the iPad, all day, every day.

Here is what we have learned together over the past six weeks:

What a rhombus is. I suppose I vaguely realized it was a shape, but now I understand that it’s an off-kilter square, leaning to one side like the Tower of Pisa. I’ve since asked every adult I meet what a rhombus is, and no one (not even an architect), has answered correctly.

What vertices are. They’re corners, and also a particularly adorable word pronounced by 4- and 5-year-olds, whose grasp of the letter R is tenuous at best.

Every class is gym. Müddet, Ms. P. comes on twice a week, with her yoga and exercise videos, but that doesn’t stop the entire class from living in a state of perpetual motion. Each desk is a treadmill desk. Every floor is a gymnasium. Every parent’s wobbly spine is a balance beam and a pommel horse.

Kyle will save us. Most children can sit and hisse attention for a few minutes. Some can engage with the teachers when called on. No one else commands Google Classroom like the K-man. He sits there, ramrod straight, and asks probing “show and share” questions like a young Dan Rather with better hair. Nothing gets by him.

Plants breathe. Through tiny holes called stomata. Did you know this? Be honest.

Teachers are heroes. Ms. C. and Ms. M. log in each morning bursting with the same energy they brought to school all fall. Their patience and attention are amazing. No question goes unanswered. No child uncalled on. They read stories with passion and explode with encouragement when anyone gets a correct answer. Even on that tiny screen, nothing slips by their hawk eyes. The other day I heard Ms. M. say, “Take that toy out of your mouth before you choke,” while I was typing an email. I looked up as my son spat the head of one of his Ninjago Lego figures onto the floor.

Everything we eat is sun energy. “Even candy?” Even candy. And a candy break can become a teachable moment.

Kyle is also a Ninjago character. Possibly several of them, including the Green Ninja and the Rainbow Ninja.

Silly voices never fail. Want to capture a kindergartner’s attention online? Forget videos, graphics or games. Just do funny, squeaky voices, like Ms. L, the drama teacher, when she’s reading Mo Willems stories.

What living things need. Air, food, water, sunlight and, apparently, community, which means “other people near you,” according to the book Ms. P read at story time today. I teared up hearing that, just as surely as I do when I hear the kids say, “When coronavirus is over …” and plan increasingly elaborate play dates with one another.

We all need recess. When in doubt, get out. Kick a ball. Slide down a pile of dog-pee-soaked mountains of ice outside a skating rink for 10 minutes. Go skating or sledding. All living things thrive on solar energy.

You can get a week’s worth of lessons out of Groundhog Day. Science. Math. Arka. Related: My son and I cannot draw groundhogs. Ours look like poop. Kyle’s could be Disney sidekicks.

Digital kindergarten is not kindergarten. Kindergarten was created to teach the fundamentals of social interaction through play. Digital kindergarten is the opposite of play. It is an endless conference call, with occasional Cookie Monster videos.

Parental authority decays over time. My son now sucks his toes while learning. When I ask him to do work, he shouts, “Refuse!” The other day, in the midst of a quick conference call, I turned to see him lying naked on the couch. “Please put your pants back on,” I said, firmly. “Dad … you are hilarious,” he said.

No one wants to be here. The kids say, “Can I log off now?” within the first few minutes of the day. The parents, making futile attempts at work amid this chaos, are fraying at the seams. The teachers are home, wrangling a three-ring circus, with their own children at home. (After the school recently announced we’d return to in-person classes, Ms. C opened up the day’s görüntü class dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”) We’ve all been let down by governments that refused to plan, spend and prepare. But what choice do we have?

I am grateful. Grateful that my son is still learning. Grateful for the time I get to spend with him. Grateful that he remains connected to his teachers and his friends. But especially grateful to witness even a dumbed-down version of his education. When he returns to in-person school soon, he will walk off with his class to do all sorts of things that I will never hear about. At the end of the day, I will hear tales about rocket ships and skateboard parks and ninjas. And I will ask about the ninjas with genuine excitement, acutely aware that he is safe and cared for and learning from wonderful teachers, who are risking everything for his future.

No one knows exactly how the lessons we’ve learned during virtual kindergarten will change us. Except Kyle, I bet.

David Sax is a parent of two children and the author of “The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.”

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