For almost a decade, Christy Schultz and Emily Feldman have taken children to school in wild South Florida. The organization they co-founded, Take Root Education, bills itself as “Education for the Soul in the Outdoor Classroom,” and if you think that sounds like a recipe for an educational process that can get kids’ shoes muddy, you’re right.
Their programs – one run from Fort Lauderdale’s Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, another from Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park in Dania Beach and the Marine Environmental Education Center in Hollywood, and a third from Greynolds Park in North Miami Beach – are entirely outdoors and nature-based. For most of their organization’s existence, it has focused on children who receive a homeschool education. But in the run-up to the 2020–21 school year, Schultz and Feldman started hearing from other parents.
“We had a few phone calls from parents who’ve chosen to take their kids out of public schools or even private schools,” Schultz says.
In particular, they’re hearing from parents who don’t want their kids in front of a computer for much of the day in “virtual” school.
According to Broward Schools, at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year enrollment in Broward public schools was down 3.5%, or about 7,600 students, from the previous year. More than 5,000 of those students were from elementary schools. That could have practical ramifications for the school district as funding is based on enrollment; if students aren’t back this month, the district stands to lose millions of dollars.
The current school year’s status is fluid; it can change weekly, even daily. As this story was being written, Broward public schools remained virtual-only. At a September press conference, Broward Schools superintendent Robert Runcie named sometime this month as a best-case-scenario for a return to partial in-person learning. He also made clear that parents and carers would have the option to keep their kids solely in virtual school. The district had previously cited a benchmark of Broward COVID-19 positivity rates being below 5 percent for at least two consecutive weeks before re-openings are considered. Catholic schools have been virtual-only since the Archdiocese of Miami decided on similar guidelines, while other schools are offering a mixture of virtual and in-person learning.
That’s the larger picture. A more intimate picture of education in 2020 is playing out across Fort Lauderdale and beyond. By now, the wildly unusual nature of this school year is evident to anyone taking part in it or looking after someone who is. All of this has meant any number of choices for parents and caregivers. Some have gone back to work and needed to find other places for their kids to go during the school day. Others have decided to look outside traditional schooling, either for total replacements or something extra alongside virtual school. Others are at home with kids who get educated online.
Andrea Woodburn is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher and yoga instructor who spent 32 years working in Broward public schools. Many children and teenagers can thrive in this new way of education, she says, but it’s important for parents and caregivers to observe the specifics of how their kids are responding.
“In a perfect world, everybody’s going to learn this way and they’re all going to be fine,” she says. “But there are children for whom this platform doesn’t work.
“If you notice signs of a change in their behavior, a change in their attitude, a lack of motivation, those are really the signs. If it’s just in an hour, that’s their mood and moods fluctuate. But if it’s a persistent change, you want to really pay attention and talk with the teacher, talk with the child.
“You as a parent want to keep them excited about school.”
That said, she also offers this advice to parents and caregivers: give yourself a break.
“You’re doing the best you can under the circumstances,” she says. “Honor that. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Peas in a Pod
In normal times, weekdays at the Museum of Discovery and Science are filled with steady streams of schoolchildren thanks to MODS’ long-held role as a local field trip favorite. This summer, with the museum quiet and the school year approaching, MODS leaders started thinking about new ways to support that young community.
“It became really clear that there’s a really huge number of families who may not be able to have a parent, grandparent or caregiver stay home and monitor their child as they’re going through their e-learning,” MODS president and CEO Joseph Cox says. “So we thought, well, what can we do to at least help in a little way?”
The answer was MODS PODS. The museum, which has on staff a number of educators normally charged with running its year-round programming and popular summer camps, started offering “learning pods.”
They’re not the only ones. Pods of young learners have been springing up in communities across America since the start of the school year. For pandemic safety reasons, they tend to be small – MODS caps individual pod groups at nine students and one supervisor, and follows strict guidelines on things like mask-wearing. Many pods are informal and parent-created; a Facebook group called Matching Students with Teachers – Broward (Pandemic Pods) now has more than 3,100 members. Others are being offered by a variety of local institutions and businesses. Xtreme Action Park – normally a place kids go for anything from cart racing and arcade games to bowling and laser tag – has been offering a pods program that includes supervised online learning and “an exciting recess inside the largest indoor park in South Florida.” A number of city-run after-school programs have expanded to include learning pods during the school day followed by modified versions of the usual after-school program. The city of Wilton Manors, for example, offers “(a)ssistance … provided to participants during virtual learning school hours,” after which students participate in a program including “sports, fitness, arts and crafts, games and special events.” Many private daycare centers also offer pods.
The rise of pods has led to concerns about inequality as ones at large institutions are not free, while lower-income families might also be less able to pay a teacher or have a caregiver in the home for an informal pod. MODS PODS costs $215 per week for MODS member families, $225 for non-members, plus $100 per week for 2-to-6pm aftercare. However, Cox says, MODS has been able to work with local nonprofit organization the A.D. Henderson Foundation “in order to identify those people who really have the most financial need for a place for their child to go.” MODS capped the program at 54 students; of those, the foundation provides scholarships for 27, Cox says.
Then there are the questions about how pods work. What’s the role of the in-person educator versus the teacher on the screen? Exactly what sort of education is a child getting?
“As a former school employee myself, I understand the academic rigor that is required of students,” says David Webb, MODS’ director of education. “The online setting makes that challenging. We don’t want to get in the way of the teachers at all; we’re just there to facilitate the experience.”
Then there’s what happens after all that screen time, when the school day is over but parents’ work time is still on. At places such as Xtreme Action Park or MODS, that’s pretty straightforward – with enhanced safety guidelines in place, kids enjoy what’s there.
“After the conclusion of the academic day, that’s when we begin our afterschool enrichment program,” Webb says. “They’re able to have fun in our various areas, and we’re making sure we’re rotating them around those areas so no pods are exposed to each other.”
Elsewhere in the community, other groups and organizations are seeing more young visitors with parents looking to get away from screens. Christy Schultz, the Take Root Education co-founder, says its program at the Bonnet House is more of a one-day nature class, as opposed to the daily programs offered at other locations. Students are there for about four hours.
“The premise of the class is to teach kids about where they live so they develop an understanding of it and an appreciation of it,” she says. “I grew up down here and I didn’t even know if I’d gone to Bonnet House. Then I moved to California, and that’s where I really got into outdoor education. I just fell in love with that kind of experience.”
Bonnet House, she says, is “such a cool place, they have all these different ecosystems here. It’s so pretty and peaceful.”
It’s also offering a family special where all kids 17 and younger get in free with a paying adult. For kids sitting in front of a computer screen all day, it offers the chance to get out and experience the Florida nature – while also getting some different kinds of educational opportunities.
“We have five different ecosystems,” says Linda Schaller, the Bonnet House’s director of education and volunteer programs, noting its primary dune, secondary dune, freshwater slough, mangrove wetlands and maritime forest ecosystems. “All of these different areas have different birds in them, different animals. Our spiders are doing wonderful webs right now, and the butterflies are all over the place.”
Add to that the art and architecture lessons you could glean from the eclectic house itself, and you’ve got some ready-made lessons. Typically, Schaller says, visitors to the Bonnet House skew older. “But now, what we’re getting is a lot more of the families that are coming in.
“As parents come through here with their kids just to sit back and look around at all the different things, we do have staff who roam around and help (answer questions). That’s the nice part about it; we do have people that are roaming around in here who can help.”
Other places are also working to provide fun, safe spaces for kids to play and get out of the house. Magic Playhouse is an indoor playground geared to children 6 and younger. Founder Alexandra Ventura has worked in education and says that while COVID-19 has changed the way the place operates somewhat – it now functions as a bookings-only “semi-private play” center rather than allowing walk-ins – the overall values of active play and learning through play are still there.
“Magic Playhouse is a safe, clean, and fun place for you to bring your child,” Ventura says. “We are currently offering private play which allows one family to play in the space at a time, as well as semi-private play which allows a small group (playdate with your guest only) to be in the space.”
Andrea Woodburn, the clinical social worker and psychotherapist, says young schoolchildren need tactile play and learning. Entirely computer-based learning might be fine for older elementary school students and beyond, but the youngest students are not geared to learn that way. With concepts such as that in mind, Ventura also created “Busy Boxes” that parents and caregivers could use at home with younger kids.
“I came up with the Busy Box to help parents keep their children busy while stuck inside,” she says. “I needed to keep Magic Playhouse going during the pandemic and parents needed easy entertainment for their kids.
“The boxes were created as mini sensory kits. Sensory play is an important part of early childhood development; it helps the brain to understand different objects and spaces. Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a young child’s brain senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Sensory play encourages children to explore and investigate. Each box had objects to touch and feel as well as hear and see.”
Adversity & Growth
For any students, and particularly for those students whose educations now take place at home, Woodburn suggests a few things to create a better educational and family experience.
For starters, she suggests having a routine, and making sure that routine starts the night before. “We often think routine starts in the morning,” she says, “but if you go to bed at a good time, you can get up in the morning.”
During the day, it’s important to think of those little moments. Yes, children and teenagers are missing out on the big stuff like seeing lots of friends and participating in extracurriculars, but they’re also missing out on smaller, everyday things, like those few minutes a day they might spend riding to and from school with a parent or caregiver.
Woodburn suggests taking a brief walk with a child in the morning, just to clear their head and get them prepared for school. “I know it seems like such a little thing, but it could be important, that mind shift,” she says.
During the day, homebound students should have a workspace, even if it’s just a spot at the kitchen table. “It has to be a designated workspace,” Woodburn says.
Then there are breaks. If a child has a school break at 10, a parent might take a break at 10:10. Give the child some time to relax and decompress, then pop in for a bit.
“You might even want to do jumping jacks with them, or jump in the pool if you have a pool,” Woodburn says. If you’re at work or somewhere else, know their schedule and use part of the break time for a phone call or quick text chat.
The end of the day is also important. Again, it goes back to those little times, like the ride home from school, that no longer exist. “Have a school wrap-up time,” Woodburn says. “It could be just five minutes.”
Just as important as having that time is using it well. “Part of being an effective, good parent is being an active listener,” she says. Parents often communicate by giving directions. That’s necessary at times, but there’s more to parent-child communication.
“There are some components of being an active listener,” she says. “One, pay attention. Look at your child. It seems basic, but many of us are on our computer; we’re on the phone.”
It’s good, she says, to let the child talk without interrupting. “When they finish, you may want to do some reflective kind of listening – ‘Oh, did I hear you say’ or ‘Is this what you mean?’ Those are some good ways to clarify. Show your child you’re interested, you care and you’re listening.”
That advice is important at any time but particularly at a time when those other little moments of parent-child engagement are missing.
“Kids use those times, the car times, because they usually have your undivided attention,” she says. “You’re not on your phone, you’re not talking to somebody.”
Parents can struggle at any time with work pressures and creating time and space for family; when home becomes the office, those lines can blur even more.
“As a parent, you have to really be mindful of worktime,” she says. “Because of the internet, we work 24-7. Setting boundaries for yourself teaches your child that relationships are important, family is important.”
For many parents and caregivers, one of the most unique aspects of this time is that their child’s education is happening right in front of them. That level of closeness might at times be frustrating for everybody involved, but it can also be an opportunity.
“This is a different way now,” she says. “The parent has a real opportunity to have a glimpse inside the classroom, where they usually don’t have that. Use that glimpse. Use it to support your child in their education.”