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Babies on Zoom: EarlyON staff keep play-learning alive amid pandemic

Kids running in and out of Zoom calls are a bit of welcome chaos – and routine – for the early childhood educators of EarlyON centre

Baby Zoom calls are the new playdates. 

The Collingwood and Alliston EarlyON staff have been taking their storytimes, action songs, and finger puppet shows virtual through video calls with toddlers. 

Tracy King and Margaret Riddell are both employees of e3 Community Services, and they work as facilitators for the EarlyON programs. 

Pre-pandemic, those programs were run out of EarlyON centres in Collingwood and Alliston. 

After COVID hit, King, Riddell and others started offering programs virtually. 

“Right from the outset of the pandemic, the biggest thing for us as staff was making sure those families and children still had a connection to something familiar, even though it’s in a different format,” said King. “It was still important to offer that support.” 

Riddell facilitates a program called Baby and Me, which is meant to be interactive. During the pandemic, she’s still offered it and tries to make it fun for babies by getting their parents to lift them up and down and move them closer and farther from the screen. 

She’s also running a Ready for Kindergarten program. 

“I’ve been pretty surprised at how much the kids have enjoyed it,” she said. “We’ve been able to interact and do activities. The kids would bring things to the Zoom call.” 

The Kindergarten prep program filled up fast and the interest resulted in a waiting list, so the EarlyON staff will be offering it again. 

Other programs such as the Positive Parenting program and the tips for parents support have gathered interest from further afield than usual. 

King facilitates those programs and said she’s had parents from Bowmanville, Meaford, and Angus join the calls. To access the program typically, parents would have to get to one of the EarlyON centres. E3 has centres in Collingwood and Alliston.

“We’ve broken some barriers going virtual, because now we don’t have to worry about transportation,” said King. 

Those barriers coming down have also made it possible for EarlyON staff to access training programs of their own. 

“We are participating in all kinds of professional development opportunities that are now more accessible to us as they are offered online,” said Riddell, adding she and other EarlyON staff are also collaborating more regularly with a widespread group of people including their counterparts in Barrie and Midland. 

There are nine staff including a supervisor working as part-time or full-time facilitators for the e3 EarlyON programs.

“We were really lucky that our employer E3 saw the value of keeping staff on while closing to the public,” said Riddell. “We are ahead of the curve in offering virtual services - a trend we believe will remain in part even as some services reopen in the future.” 

She acknowledged a virtual program doesn’t replace a physical program in every way, but said it allows for an expanded reach. 

E3 is currently working on reopening Tots’n’Tykes at the EarlyON centres for the beginning of September, and possibly sooner. They will be providing updates for parents via their Facebook pages.

Through the pandemic, the EarlyON staff have kept a full calendar of programs. 

“Where we could, we tried to just offer the programs we would normally offer in a virtual way,” said Riddell. 

King and Riddell used to spend a lot of time hands-on with the kids at the EarlyON centre, getting down on the floor to interact or play. 

“I definitely miss playing with them in the centre,” said Riddell. 

On Zoom calls, kids are still participating by requesting songs, or showing off items from their home to the rest of the group. 

“It’s been kind of fun to see that, kids running off and coming back with what they found,” said Riddell. “It kind of keeps the normalcy of what it’s like to be with kids.” 

Riddell and King also acknowledged there’s been added stress and hardships for families, and both parents and kids are experiencing stress and anxiety. 

“It’s ok to feel that way. Just keep in mind that children are extremely capable and perceptive even at a young age. Just being mindful of that and trying to be positive but also knowing it’s okay to fall apart and that happens,” said Riddell. “Children will also learn how to handle extreme circumstances by seeing their parents get through that.” 

King said it’s important for parents to know the physical isolation of the pandemic doesn’t also have to mean they are on their own. 

“I would want parents to know they’re not alone. Lots of people are going through the same emotions, highs and lows” said King. “Reach out to us or to a friend to get picked up a little bit because we all need that too. A big portion of our job has always been parent support. 

"We’ve been saying all along we’re here for you. We’re all in this together.”

You can find a calendar with information on all the programs offered in August on the e3 website here.

The phone number parent/caregivers to call the Collingwood EarlyON Child and Family Center main site is: 705-446-0816, ext. 227 to speak to a staff member. Staff are available Mon-Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and parents are welcome to call for support or just to chat or connect with someone.