Kindergarten friendship: At the beginning of the school year, Seattle Public Schools loaned every kindergartner a brand-new tablet. As a mom, I considered this a sort of Pandora’s box, a substitute for real play and learning wrapped up in more screen time, which as parents we’ve repeatedly been told to limit for kids. However, my 5-year-old daughter, Olivia, regarded it as through she’d been given a pot of gold. Because until that moment, she had only been able to have screen time in small, measured chunks borrowing someone else’s device.
Even with the small books, punched out alphabet letters, glue sticks, safety scissors and crayons given to us, this didn’t look like kindergarten to me. But I vowed to be as enthusiastic as possible. My interpretation of kindergarten being about learning to share, negotiating boundaries, working out how to play cooperatively and creating some of one’s own friends outside the family, had little to do with what Olivia’s experience likely would or could be in this strange new world of online kindergarten.
Soon we started the school year, following rules provided by the school: turn on the tablet and connect to an online meeting at 8:30 every morning, camera on with the microphone muted. Once there, Olivia could see the twenty other kids in their respective little squares, as well as her teacher, and start to figure out when to raise her hand or unmute to participate in school – when the Ms. Richards called her name for attendance, asked the question of the day, told her to sound out a word or solve a math question.
In the first couple of weeks, we just bounced through the routine trying to get comfortable. I figured out the pattern of names being called in attendance so we could tell when it was almost Olivia’s turn … Cara, Candice, Cailin, then Olivia. And during that turn to speak, each kid would answer a question that Ms. Richards had posed, such as naming their favorite animal. Olivia told me after the first month that she really liked one of the girls in her class. I couldn’t quite discern what about this little girl out of the twenty students there made her stand out. They had never spoken directly.
Desperate for Olivia to have even a little bit of the normal bonding I remembered from school, I set out to try to connect them. Taking a guess based on the classroom roster and the parents’ email distribution list, I found an email address that I thought was the correct one for the little girl’s family and introduced us. When her mom responded, saying, “That’s so funny because my daughter thinks your daughter is her best friend too!” we realized these little hearts had seen things in one another and imagined themselves into friendship from the little information they could glean.
We planned to meet at a playground. “Do you think that is Candice?” Olivia asked as she tried to connect her two-dimensional imaginary friend to the girl in the park with a mask on. It was Candice, and the two girls finally could play tag, go on the monkey bars and have the luxury of talking. Candice’s mom told me that for the recent assignment that Ms. Richards had given the kids to draw a friend, Candice had drawn a picture she said was Olivia.
On the way home, Olivia was excitedly telling me about the things they have in common: Both like dogs and monkey bars and have younger siblings. Of course, it’s more than that because 5-year-olds rarely connect that linearly. I think it was that Candice had a nice voice, a sweetness and a similar air of lightness. Talking with Candice’s mom, even behind masks, I sensed a kinship as well, like we could also be friends, as evidenced by the willingness to respond to a stranger who wanted to organize playdates – and to show up even when it turns out to be a rainy Sunday morning, just so you can enhance your child’s learning adventure. In one playdate, after a lot of screen time, Olivia’s friend had moved from remote to real. I, not Olivia, was surprised; Olivia knew they were friends all along.
Not long after they met, Olivia was crushed one morning because even though the teacher had called on her, a more voluble student answered before she could. Then Ms. Richards called on Candice to do the A-B-C chant, something Olivia desperately wanted an opportunity to do, and wasn’t going to be able to do because Ms. Richards was moving on to a new activity. As we talked through her big feelings about that morning session, I asked who did get called on to do the chant. “Candice!” Olivia said, and brightened as she said so because she all of a sudden saw her friend’s good fortune. It helped her move beyond her own disappointment. And that, even though it happened on a tablet, looked exactly like the experience of kindergarten that I had been expecting.
Assuming that the pandemic conditions continue to hold steady or improve, Ms. Richards is going to hold an in-person summer camp for her past and present students. Candice’s mom and I texted about the arrangements and decided to sign our kids up. We are hoping these two friends will get to enjoy playing and learning together in person for a whole week this summer. I can already hear Olivia’s excited voice telling me about her day – one I won’t be in attendance for, just like real school, or, in this case, masked camp.
Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.
More in Seattle’s Child