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Wimpfheimer Nursery School Goes DigitalOnline learning is easy as 1-2-3 for Vassar community’s littlest students

The doors of Vassar’s Wimpfheimer Nursery School may be shut due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but Director Julie Riess and her staff have found plenty of creative ways to keep the learning going.

Wimpfheimer Nursery School students Kingsley (left) and Clotilde proudly display some of their “homework.”

Like Vassar College students who are interacting with faculty through Zoom, email, and other electronic means, the more than 60 children who attend Wimpfheimer, and their parents, are convening digitally. They share their feelings at circle time, read stories, build towers, count things in their homes, and engage in other activities with Riess and her 14 fellow teachers. “Part of the goal is literacy, but it’s also about ensuring that the children stay connected with the familiar people in their lives,” Riess said. “We all need a routine during this stressful time, but it’s especially important for children.” 

In addition to the teachers, Vassar students enrolled in work-study at Wimpfheimer are joining the children at circle time or reading stories to them. “It’s important for us to provide as many familiar faces to the children as we can,” Riess said.

Shortly after Wimpfheimer was forced to close, the staff began making plans to provide materials for the parents to help them with the child care they’d all be doing at home, Riess said. “But it became clear really quickly that this was about the kids as well,” she said. “As our digital programming began to evolve, the staff developed multiple pathways for this new kind of learning.”

As they gained familiarity with Zoom and other electronic communication tools, the teachers set up daily group chats with their classes and developed individual and group activities. One popular activity is a counting exercise: The children are assigned something to count in their homes, such as all doors or all legs—on their furniture and on the people they’re living with—and then report back with the final number. “This simple exercise involves a lot of skills—math and movement during the counting and engagement and communication in reporting on what they’ve learned,” Riess said.

Since Zoom enables all of the children in a class to see each other, they can continue to engage in many group activities. Recently the parent of a preschool student played the piano for her child’s class, and through Zoom, the parents and children all sang and danced together. Riess said members of the staff sometimes record such one-time events so families can revisit them with their children at a later time.

Parents and children often take photographs of their home-based activities and share them the next day with other members of their class at circle time or in shared class photo albums, Riess said.

In addition to developing their own activities for each class, Riess and her staff have collected information on movies, television shows, and online programming suitable for Wimpfheimer’s students, who range from infants and toddlers and preschoolers to after-school students from Kindergarten through fifth grade.

Keeping Wimpfheimer going has been a blessing for the children and their parents. Kaitlin Leach, Vassar’s Associate Athletic Director for Compliance and Student-Athlete Welfare, said her two children look forward to connecting with their friends and teachers every day. “It’s clear the Wimpfheimer administrators and staff have found a routine, combining modern technology and their already-existing curriculum,” Leach said. “Our daughter Sadi, who is in the mixed-age class, spends much of her day looking for items to share in the next day’s Zoom meeting. And our son Kai reminds us frequently what friend of his had what toy and what the story of the morning was.”

Riess said the staff’s original goal was to develop some programs so they could help the children and their parents cope with the stress and anxiety that are part of everyone’s life since the pandemic forced the college to suspend many of its activities. “But this has been just as beneficial to the staff,” she said. “None of us realized how much it means to us to see everybody every day online. It has made such a difference for all of us as we adjust to this new normal for a while.”