Episode 3: Pandemic Play and Harlem

Listen to “Episode 3: Pandemic Play and Harlem” on Spreaker.

How do children learn to play in a pandemic? Host Mila Myles and three children’s development experts, Pleshette Carr, LMSW, Michele Finkelman, LCSW, and Shondra Davis, PsyD., discuss the value of play in learning, how it changes for each family, and how our experts adapted their teaching and counseling to support Harlem families throughout the pandemic.

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Mila Myles:
Welcome to New York State of Mindfulness, a podcast about mental health, wellness, and the communities we live in throughout New York City, sponsored by The Jewish Board. Today, we're talking about play and resilience in Harlem. I'm joined by Shondra Davis, Michele Finkelman, and Pleshette Carr.

Some schools in Harlem are particularly struggling as they're overcrowded and under-sourced. Part of the issue is under reporting on the census, which should afford more money to populated areas, but lacked insight to reach residents widely. Instead, the underfunding causes more pronounced racial and class inequity due to "wealthier predominantly White families" who flock to private schools.

The Central Harlem area has approximately 95.3 thousand people per mile. It's a very densely populated area, and 23% of the residents are between the ages of 0-19, so that's youth. Racial breakdowns are 54% Black, 24% Hispanic, 16% White, 4% Asian, and 3% is two or more races. 40% of households make under $55,000 a year while 20% or residents live below the poverty line. 26% are children under 18. 20% of the population is foreign-born, so mostly Latin American or African born. 31% of households speak more than one language.

Today I'm joined by a bonus guest. So, we usually have three guests on this platform; but today, we have the joy of having three specialists who work with these communities and these demographics in this area.

I'm joined by Dr. Shondra Davis, a clinical psychologist who directs the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Program as well as the Harlem Child Development Center’s Early Childhood Outpatient Clinic at The Jewish Board. She has extensive experience providing relationship-focused, culturally informed interventions for trauma-exposed young children and their families. Dr. Davis is a bilingual, African American clinician who has specialized in working with African American families as well as Spanish speaking families. She is committed to bringing evidence-based approaches to mental health service providers in order to improve access to quality care for families from all backgrounds. Dr. Davis aligns with the belief that culture and community are integral pathways to individual and collective health and healing.

Shondra Davis:
Thank you for having me.

Mila Myles:
Thank you for coming. We're also joined by Michele Finkelman. Michele Finkelman has been in the field of early childhood education for over 25 years, 18 of which have been dedicated to working in a special education preschool setting. During that time, she has worked at the Childhood Development Center’s Therapeutic Nursery as a special education teacher, educational supervisor and currently as the school director. Michele holds master's degrees in both early childhood special education and educational leadership. Working with children, watching them learn and grow has been one of the greatest joys of her life equaled only by her journey as a parent of three. Welcome Michele.

Michele Finkelman:
Thank you for having me, it's a pleasure to be here.

Mila Myles:
Another guest that we have today, I told you guys, we usually have two guests, but today we have three. We're also joined by Pleshette Carr. Pleshette Carr has been in the education field for 10 plus years and has worked with children of all ages and abilities. Her work has mainly included nonprofit programs, including a college readiness program for underprivileged youth of color, who are first-generation college students. Pleshette, began working with children with special needs in grad school, running research centered around social stories and play. She began working at the childhood development center in 2015 as a paraprofessional and graduated to headteacher. Pleshette was also born and raised in The Bronx. Welcome, Pleshette.

Pleshette Carr:
Thanks for having me.

Mila Myles:
Now, we get to get into it. I mean, I listed a few of those statistics out there and I think anybody who's been to Harlem— or even lived in Harlem— can see the demographics listed in that study as soon as they step off of the train. Better yet, you can hear them on your way there on the train, Black and brown families, Spanish speaking families who are also Black and brown as well as a lot of teenagers and a lot of kids. So I can only imagine you guys have such a huge group of children and students to work with in your field.

I wanted to get into a few things with you guys today based off of your research and the work that you do in your area with The Jewish Board. And we're talking about play and resilience, and play as a type of resilience. I was wondering if one of you can define play or tell me who defines play.

Pleshette Carr:
The work that we do on the side of the Child Development Center, I think that the child defines play. I think that the environment defines the play that the child is going to have. And I think a large part of it is a child's past experiences, and the experiences that they have every day, that defines the play that we come together to do inside the classroom and outside of the classroom.

Shondra Davis:
Yeah. I like what Pleshette just said, that the child defines what is considered play and very much true that it’s determined by their family environment, the community environment— and there's no wrong way to play, thank goodness. It's like what the child brings is up to us, as those who are serving that child and family, to recognize what is considered play and how to engage with that child and with that family; and the play that they're bringing to us to support them in their process, whether it be in learning that's happening in the therapeutic nursery or whether it be in mental health treatment that's happening through the clinic or the consultation programs that we run.

Michele Finkelman:
Yeah. That was a really good question. Definitely, got me thinking for a minute about that, because play is so important for all children of all ages, but for the youngest children, it really is how they learn. So, it's not just that they want to be having fun and doing things that they enjoy, which is also true— they should be. But also through play, through interacting with the world around them, through objects, through other people, is actually how young children learn and develop their cognitive skills, their coping skills, really their development across all domains. So it's a really important part of child development.

Mila Myles:
Thank you. Yeah. Because at first, and looking at you all's background and the work that you do, my first question was only going to be limited at what is play; but then I thought about it and I have other friends who are educators, who we've been having conversations like these based on their work and their concern for children and play and their development in the last few years, and they did explain to me that for a long time children weren't given, at least in research study and things like that, the kind of autonomy to be the ones who get to define what play is and what it means for them.

This is going to be a really loaded one. I know that everybody is experiencing this differently, but how have you seen this change during COVID?

Pleshette Carr:
I think coming from being in person with our children and then going into this virtual land that we have, right? At first, we kept asking, how are we going to play? Because initially, teachers are very used to having the children in front of them. We're used to being able to have all of our senses and treat as we're playing with children. And I think this shifts meeting children that we were able to scaffold with their play, and have them create a play sequence: know how to use the object that they're playing with, and use it in different ways and to build on that, to now meeting new children who may not have any of that foundation. And then you mix in a parent population that some of them have their own possible developmental situations, but also a lot of parents saying, "I don't know how to play."

And again, so now we're not teaching one person, we're teaching two individuals how to play at this point. So there was a shift of, "Oh man, this is such a big traumatic experience. We're in a pandemic, sure they have toys." I think there was a big shift to electronics: the use of a simple yellow bus with people may not have been at interest because some of our parents may have wanted to get the iPad or the kids will be like the iPad. So there was a shift from kids using toys; and so we had to kind of pull the kids back in and bring out a little figurines, take things from the classrooms and show them, "Hey, I have a car, do you have a car?" Showing them just simple, going back and forth and modeling.

I think that became such a big focus as we shifted in the pandemic, just that modeling and letting parents know it's okay to let them experiment. And this is coming from me, a first-time mom. I'm raising a toddler in this pandemic. So for me too, this was a big shift for me being home and modeling for him and teaching him as well. If this is what we can do with Legos, I was letting him have the moment. So what we like to do in the classroom is first, just give the kids, even if they have water, give them a cup; let them start with the scooping and the pouring. And then as we find out that they're making these new discoveries, then let's add something else, let's add a boat and to help them build discovery.

So it's kind of watching— and a lot of parents, I think, with the stress of the pandemic and the stress of going remote, they didn't want to watch. It's hard to watch for them. And it was about building their courage to do that. And to say, "We can do this, we're going to play together, this is what we do at school." And I think again too, to shift the parents' minds from thinking that we just sit down and we write on paper all day, we do worksheets. No, we're based on play. And so a lot of it was shifting the parents— ourmindset, but also shifting how we played virtually together and building that bridge.

Definitely there was a change from children being able to do this in-person, to then teaching them. It's okay to do it on screen with the teacher and to teach the parents to let the children explore and to help them to build their child's repertoire as they played.

Shondra Davis:
I really like what you're saying Pleshette, about how the focus of the play shifted from just the individual child or even a group of children to the child and the caregiver dyad. That's what we've seen also through the clinic, that it's been really important for the clinician to be thinking about how to support the caregiver in engaging in the play. And also to build on what you said, Pleshette, in our field we understand that children learn through play. It's serious work that's going on, it's not just fun and games, right? They're understanding how the world works and how to be and who they are. They're developing competence. And then clinically, from a mental health perspective, we think about play as being the major tool through which children communicate complex emotions, the way for them to try on new ideas, to express emotions that they know to a certain degree cognitively, but more kind of intuitively and organically emotions that are not socially acceptable. They can be acceptable through the play. Right?

And so when we think about play in treatment, we are really focused on following the child's lead. And so when children are playing, we're looking to see: what is the story they're trying to tell us? What are they wanting to communicate through the play? Rather than, what's the activity supposed to result in. And so in that way, supporting parents and thinking about play through another lens, even then, what Pleshette was speaking about, has been a big part of our work and that's been a big shift in treatment, is helping the parents see it doesn't matter if they don't, "understand" how to play the board game that we want them to play, whether it's candy land or whether it's a card game. That's not what we're focused on.

We're focused on “how do they play?” What themes come up? How do they deal with conflict? How do they tolerate frustration? What story are they telling us about an experience that they had, if they're playing in a doll house, if they have a doll house at home? How are they using their creative skills to solve problems? And that's been a really cool thing that we've been able to… For families to, you spoke about, what are the differences, right? If there's a digital divide happening in different spaces and access to a certain degree, that's actually been good because it forces us and families to go back to basics, and how can we create stuff with what you got lying around the house? Because it's not about the fanciest new toys. That's not really what helps kids develop. It’s the engagement with the other people, and the other people understanding the concepts they're trying to communicate.

And that dynamic is what helps development and improves communication and improve social skills. And so that's all what we're looking for in treatment. So, there've been some good parts, although not all of it, about not all kids having the "desired digital access." And again, my population is the little ones, birth to five. So what they need technology for and it's qualitatively different than what other school aged children need or adolescents need. So I don't want to speak to that group, but for the little ones, it's good that they may not have the access that other kids might have.

Pleshette Carr:
And I like that point that you made, Shondra, about trying to figure out what we could do with things that are lying around the house. And my research as I'm lesson planning during the week, we would try to find different ways. How can we use a jar? How could we use this bottle? How many different ways—Because you do this, and I remember, I can't remember her name, but I did some research on YouTube in terms of developing language, a lot of our work with play, help to develop the children's language. And she'll have little videos and say, tape makes children talk, straws help children to talk, and using those resources to do things with children, taking a play food, and then taking the book and saying "This matches," and playing with that as we're in the kitchen area, relabeling items and seeing what they do with it.

And many times it's so exciting. I love the kitchen area. All the kids love the kitchen. I wish I could play in the kitchen all day, but just watching these children do what they do at home and what they see is amazing when you get to do that. And so this pandemic, in the beginning, took a shift away from that. And we had to find new ways to create that. I remember seeing a book that they had, called Loose Parts. So taking those things that you have at home and taking a tube and making that into a boat or making them into a spider. What we want to see from children is, what are they going to imitate? If I gave them a tube, but they’re picking it up and pretending that it's a phone. We have a child who just did that.

I was so excited to see his progress, when we met back with him, as we have a shift, we take a break and he came back and he pretended to call his superhero friends because something was wrong. And he took the notepad, he was writing on it and he says, yeah, he said, "Hello." I said, "Oh my God, this is what we were waiting for." Seeing that, even in a pandemic, it shows that there was some work put in from the parents as well. I think they were starting to understand: this is hard on all of us, but play can ease stress, play can help and supply out your fears, play can help you to play out those traumas. And I think for them too, to learn to play was a big thing. I think a lot of our parents tend to grieve a lot and it pulls away from them playing with their child, interacting with their child.

And when we meet their children and we're playing with them, you can see the need, you can see how they look to us. You could see how they admire what we're doing. And I think as parents see those changes at home, they're forever grateful. But again, we want to keep bridging that gap between the classroom and the parents, and saying, "You could do this too. It's not just when they come to me, but you can do it too.”

And it does strengthen the relationship between the child and the parent. I've seen some great things over the pandemic with parents. We give one thing and it kind of scaffolds them. They say, "Hey, we've made a rocket ship out of a box today." I'm like, "Hey, that's great." And this is coming from a parent who's also on the spectrum, who said, "I don't know how to play with my son." So some great things have come out of this, yes. There's been challenge but I think a lot of great things have come even with the shifts.

Mila Myles:
Play is inspiring and affirming for the whole family, not just for the kids' development, but also a lot of these parents may not be first-time parents, but most parents. You're still learning more about your parenting with every child. I can only imagine how much more affirming that is for them and the kind of educational it is for them and their experience with their child and more family building. Play is family building, not just for the child's development. And I think that we've always seen it that way. So that's really good to hear, that makes me really happy.

Shondra Davis:
I love what you said that play is family building. We need to make that a little catch phrase. In your first question you asked, who gets to define play, right? The child gets to define play. The family gets to define play. And play is bath time, that's play. Play is feeding time, that's play. Play is the little one doing chores with mama, pretending to wash the dishes, pretending to sweep, that's play. So this notion that play only looks like playing with a toy train set, or barbie doll house, that is one type of play, but it is not all of what play looks like. And so I love this concept of play as family building, and when we start to break away these set ideas of what it looks like, it helps all adults see, "Oh yeah, I do know how to play, because if I have my little one baking with me or making dinner with me, and we make fun things at the same time as we're doing this important task for the family.” That's part of it, right? There's no separation.

Mila Myles:
The family defines play. Wow. I mean, that's just… I told you my brain was going to explode before this interview was over. I have those similar experiences. I don't get to live near my family, and my sister has two young children and I play with them over the phone. And we play, me, them and my partner, we basically play drag. We get into dress up with wigs and they take whatever they can find around them, and they put on a hat and we pretend to be different characters with each other. She forces us to play hide and seek on FaceTime on our phones which I've been doing with her since she was a baby, and it made such a difference in us having a relationship, even though I'm hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, we have a really close bond and it's brought me and my sister together.

I feel it, but it's affirming also to hear you all say it. Now, I think we touched on some of this bringing up COVID and how this is a tough time for us and how the kids and the parents have to… When we didn't know in New York, it was ghost town and we didn't know what was safe at all, and everything had to be disinfected. So the only safe things were the things that were already in our home. So they had to reshape things in their home and their imaginations. They had to fix their imaginations. Right?

I want to talk a little bit about play as a coping mechanism. Is play different for children and families in Harlem, and the ways that they've had to cope around COVID versus what you may have seen or heard from other colleagues working in other parts of town? How have you seen it become a coping mechanism from the stress and anxiety around COVID?

Pleshette Carr:
I would say that what's difficult is that we don't get all the stories from families of how they're managing these changes. But one, a couple things that we do know is, like you said, the different types of activities that a family could participate in became very small and it's basically, the options were, in our apartment or going to the park. And that kind of became the breadth of things that a family could participate in. And so I think a lot of what we have understood is that the stress on the caregiver is what really was most prominent that the caregiver feeling like they had no respite— because they didn't. Where could they go to get a break, to slow down, to recharge to… So I think that part for our age group was really challenging, and continues to be really challenging, because you can't quite say to a three-year old “go out there and play a little bit and come back when you're tired,” like you could to a ten-year-old in the playground in your building. You have to be with your little one.

And so I think that has been very difficult for families more than anything else is the lack of respite that caregivers have experienced and the high level of stress and ambiguity. Like you said about what's safe, when will this end, if the parents lost their job due to COVID and haven't been able to find employment again, those stressors are wearing down on people.

Michele Finkelman:
I think one of the things that happens with COVID, during this pandemic, is that it kind of puts a magnifying glass on everything. And in this case, I think putting this on a magnifying glass on the disparities and the lack of equity that we have in the city and how it impacts families in different ways. So all of the challenges that family has experienced— from racism, from lack of economic parody and equity that existed before— and I think COVID kind of puts a magnifying glass on it.

So when you have families who have… Everybody is feeling stressed, right? I heard of the expression, we're all in the same storm, but we're all in different boats, or we're really not in the same boat. So you see that we all have stress, but families have different levels of resources. And you see a family that is able to get in their car and drive out to their country home is having a very different experience during the pandemic than a family who lives in an urban apartment and doesn't have the resources to… Has to make the most of what they have in that moment.

But I think also, it's put a spotlight on the good things, the protective factors that families have, and being able to build family, to build play, to being there for each other. And every parent wants their child to be able to have the coping skills that they need to get through the pandemic. And I think one of the thing early in the pandemic, one of the solutions we felt was, "Oh, our children, they don't have a lot of toys at home, they don't have a lot of resources and they don't have art supplies, let's send them things." And we did that. We sent care packages and we sent them resources.

And I think that helped, but I think what really helped is making that connection, and making the connection with families and that they were then able to use what they had to develop these coping mechanisms and to play. A child can play out their trauma, they can play out their stress, what they've experienced, what's hard, and they can bring it into that play and they can role play with their families. It'll come out, you'll see the child bring into the home, into the classroom, what they're experiencing and the solutions.

So I think that… And also our opportunity that we don't usually have as educators to be in the home with families. So usually, the children come to us and they're in the classroom, and we don't necessarily get to be with the families. We try to work as closely with them as we can. But the opportunity is for us to prepare them, like, beaming into the home and be with the family, be with the siblings, see what their environment looks like and work with them that way. I think is one of the really wonderful kind of hidden advantages of having to live through this kind of experience together.

Pleshette Carr:
And just to take you back to what Michele was saying, I think one of the other things that we interacted with is our students' health. We have students who have asthma, we have students that just have various health histories. And you hear about this pandemic, you say, "Oh, no, we're not going outside." There was this moment where everything was just pure lockdown and any child, even if they had the access to go and drive up to a country home, they didn't get that for a while.

And so our children had a lot of energy built up. Parents were seeing behavioral changes, and we started to have more conversations about, "What can we do?" And that was adding onto the stress. We were seeing dropping levels of participation in the sessions. And, as teachers, we were saying, "What can we do?" and that's where we also reached out and I said to Michele, "You know what, this is a great idea, let's send some materials home, because I think that was putting a lot of strain on the families.”

Not being able to go out to get the things, not having the childcare to go out to get these things. We're talking about homes where… I mean, I've had a student, I think it was about eight siblings in the house, so you have to round up and get everyone together. You don't want to expose everybody. So I think there was a level of fear as well, even as some things opened up, even as we educated the families and us as a population became educated again, where we had to identify, we were seeing that there was a lack of resources, whether that just be even food to try to do play with just food.

And some family said, "Listen, I can't even use this potato to play with you. I may need to eat this potato." And so it led us to start to say, especially for my classroom, I said, "Let's take a walk together," giving every single child that opportunity. Let's take a walk. And we didn't take a walk till maybe October. We said, we'll wear the mask and we will be enforcing all the rules, and the washing of the hands, and just get a family's okay with that idea of even going out. I think this idea of being on zoom was like, "Wow, we can take a walk," but not thinking that children are losing out on these sensory experiences as well. And coming from a mom again, I really had to let this be known to parents and I wanted to exude this because my son missed out on a lot of those experiences over that time.

So it was about recreation. And again, in my train of thought, I said, "Wow, this is happening for my children too in Zoom land," and at this point we were trying to prepare to be hybrid in case, "Oh we just wish we were in person, so we could do these things." But again, explaining to the parents how important sensory experiences would be, and as we started to change the hybrid, our OTs and PTs, we're talking about, “these children may not be used to hearing sirens outside, that might be too loud for them, just the people, it might be scary.”

I noticed that with my own son. The winds, that's a big thing for him. So we have some kids who missed out on these experiences the whole time, and we wanted them to have these experiences and bring it into their play. So it was, again, about putting that in with the family and just making really fun nights. I think, as we validated their feelings, when it came to the pandemic and the stresses and said, "Listen, we're coming into your homes, we're in our homes, you're coming into our homes," and letting them be known, "You're not alone." But remember in situations like this, I think there was a quote that we have put up to the parents and it said, "The kids are not going to remember what you did, they're going to remember how they felt."

We have to remember that, to validate their feelings. This is going to be challenging. Yes. The children are building up energy, we have children who have a walk stairs. We have children who may not have walked a complete block in months. And so, even as we prepare to go back to hybrid, where we are now, we are taking this into consideration as well. And I think there's still an even level of stress, parents, I think, want them to be in-person a little more, but we're still trying to stress this idea that we can cope through play with the parents, even as what hybrid now.

Michele Finkelman:
Yeah, I was, I agree with you so much, Pleshette. I'm just remembering back in the beginning when we were sending out those care packages, I think your point was really important. We weren't just sending toys, we were sending diapers, we were sending wipes, we were sending food. And it wasn't just that we felt like, well families can't afford to go and buy these things, but they literally couldn't go out and get them. And the fact that everyday kind of household items were also supporting the play and the development of children because it freed up the parents not to have to worry about where that next package of diapers were coming from. "Where am I going to get wipes? Where am I going to get toilet paper?" And I think that that really allowed the focus to shift to supporting children's emotional wellbeing to playing and engaging with them.

I think one of the things that we learned too, or I'll speak for myself, that I learned is that really part of supporting parents to support their children is for us, the providers, the teachers, and the therapist to kind of manage our own expectations when it comes to families and what we're expecting them to do. Because just like we want to be with the children and meet them where they are, so that we can kind of take them to that next level in their development— whatever it is— but we need to meet parents and caregivers where they are, too. And really to understand that we may have our agenda of what we want to see them doing with their children, but if you're worrying about where your next meal is coming from, or what's happening with your job, or even somebody's sick, or even, "Am I going to be able to access the computer today? Or does somebody else living in my household need it?" Until you're able to have those things taken care of, you're not going to want to hear someone saying, "Okay, now sit down and do this with your child, do this the way I say and when I say," that's just not going to work.

So when you think about hierarchy of needs, being able to support families and understanding where their needs are, and meeting where they are, is really important in order to be able to kind of put that next level of support or that next level of growth in place for the child.

Mila Myles:
I'm an aunt or guncle or whatever you want to call me. Myself and a few other people included and I've talked to other parents, friends who are parents about that. A lot of them have children who are under seven years old. One of the things that I started to be concerned with about the children in my life, especially, and other kids that were like my neighbors, how their development would be affected. At first, I was like, "Great, they have a year long snow day." For the first few weeks, I was happy for them. Honestly, I was like, "Yes, no school," I got to live vicariously for a minute.

But then I realized how many other experiences they would be missing out on when it came to further developing language. Because my sister showed some concern with my niece at four or five years old, that she was worried that, she wasn't sure she had a speech impediment, or maybe she might be on the spectrum. And not that it's a bad thing, but just if she knew what the proper care for that was, if she had the right resources. And then I started to realize on a larger scale, what that meant for so many other parents and educators in the world, really, when children are at home and the ones who do have access to devices and screens or personal screens, how their development is going to go, as well as the kids who don't have that access, because they're both going to be missing out on something. And one might have more access to one thing than the other. I think a lot of people can say they didn't realize how much that really factored in because our generation at least has never experienced this before. All of our generations, right?

I wanted to throw a statistic out there for you, thinking about development and access. At least in the country, 47, almost 48% of parents said they were very concerned about the screen time their kids were getting. And I'm wondering how has that shifted in you all's field, in you all's roles, your various roles and the families you work with and having to do it virtually; that being another screen that they had to engage with, if they had the access, how has that changed some of your missed goals, adapting goals, as well as the goals you've had to set for the children and families you were working with or were preparing to work with?

Pleshette Carr:
I think coming from a teacher's perspective, going from being in-person to being on the screen, while we had a lot of kids who were familiar with iPads and the cell phone, and we know that's their goal too and they liked the light and they know how to play the games, this was different. We’re now asking you to come on and have a session where we're mimicking what we would be doing in a classroom. And so, again, not putting pressure on them in the beginning to have the child sit while we had a lot of parents who were very concerned, they were very precautious about it and saying, "I'm so sorry, they can't sit,” we're saying, "Hey, it's okay. We're asking you now to sit in front of a screen with sessions that could be 30 minutes long." And in the beginning for our program, we kind of had it as an opt in opt out service. And so per classroom, we would offer these sessions for the children and a lot of them, we started this place sessions.

It was very new for us. It was stressing for teaching staff as well, because we needed to adapt. We don't have the materials would have had before. And again, just as we're teaching them to use what's around the house, we're planning to use things that are around the house. And while we don't want to go from Pinterest links, and we liked to play to our emergent curriculum which placed what the child is interested in, we then had to mold all this together, but also make it comfortable. I think at some point when we did develop a schedule, it became harder for parents and they would say, "Hey, it's so long to be on." And while we understand too, we know it's not recommended for children under five to even have that much screen time, we understood that.

And so tailoring those sessions, working the children up, maybe starting 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes. And I think we've made some great progress with it, again letting parents know, there's no pressure, but this is how we could do it. So again, it was that therapeutic piece, that piece that we were supporting them through the session— so, let's try bringing his favorite stuffed animal. "Oh, hey, he's got on his pajamas. Oh, it's fine, as long as he got the pants on," working with them wherever they were, because we've had some kids that the parents are like, getting them out of bed and "I'm so sorry, this is so hard." It's okay. You're here. Right? You made it. Thanks for coming. And for me, I like to make a personal bridge from the classroom to the home. "Hi. How are you doing today, Ms. So-And-So? I'm so glad to see you. I know this weekend was tough.”

But also bringing in my personal experience, I had many sessions where my son is hanging off my shoulder. My son, at the time that we started this pandemic, he was about eight— nine months? I think it was. And I said, "Wow," like bringing my personal space into that space and saying, "It's okay, we're not expecting this right now. We know this is new. We know this is a long time.” We went from, "If you would like to come to the session, you could come,” and just doing simple things like story time, interact the story times, maybe watching a YouTube video together. A chance to keep it baseline, because it was a rough thing to jump into for the kids.

But as we normalized and made a schedule and brought in the things the kids knew, like the songs and the movement and the dance, I think that parents began to appreciate it. But then we got to a point where it's like, "Man, this is long, it's a lot." And they were trying to manage. So again, then we're saying “you have this schedule,” and they say, "Well, when am I supposed to cook lunch? When do I prepare dinner?" Because we needed their support on sessions. They were given the support, the direct support that we couldn't give directly.

And so now, we're trying to work together and empower them to sit on the sessions with the kids. And so a lot of the times, I tried to have sessions with parents to kind of let them reflect a little bit. And I like to have them do arts and I like to have them kind of engaged to ease them, "This is okay, what's happening right now. It's okay that you're not okay." And to let them know that we were there for them, I think we really needed to validate the parent's feelings and take away from, "Well, you should do this," and saying, "Let's do this together. Let's get to the point where the children can sit."

We've had children that couldn't tolerate more than five minutes, and so what do we do? We created an incremented schedule and we say, "Hey, five minutes this week, 10 minutes next week, you're here though.” Right? Thinking about the “here and now” and where we want it to go. So I think, in the beginning, maybe our goals were to say, "Hey, we want them to sit for 20 minutes." Normally we have sessions of 30 minutes in a classroom and say, "Hey, maybe that's too long to sit."

And even for us as educators, we're like, "Wow, we're on here, then we have the meeting and we got to go back and forth." I think over time, just as we pulled back a little bit and set those expectations a little lower, and kind of put in our minds that we wanted to ease the parents' minds and help them to cope short. "There's a lot going on, but I'll meet you where you are. Now, if you could make two sessions out of the day, great." We've done that. "Would you like me to send you a supplemental video?" "Yes." "Great." Even those things to kind of support the parents in different ways, giving them different opportunities to interact, even if they couldn't be on the screen was helpful for the parents over time.

Mila Myles:
It's amazing and kind of crazy that you all had to compete with their environment and then their screens. So, I think it's really amazing that you had to keep experimenting. I mean, this was a whole trial that you had to keep doing to see what works because it's hard enough to keep kids paying attention in the classroom, let alone in front of a screen.

But I want to talk about the relationship between play and resilience as a long-term strategy, as more schools open up and more access to spaces increase and these families and kids are slowly transitioning into these spaces. How do you see the relationship to play and resilience and some of the things that they have learned, do you see them taking some of that with them back into having access to more spaces, having more access to the school spaces and play spaces?

Pleshette Carr:
I think shifting back into the classroom space, I think first and foremost, for the adults, we're very wary and scared of certain things when it came to play, because there was this notion of to stay safe in the classroom that children also have to give more than personal space again, and helping them to understand that concept also with materials. It's taken the… I want to say, we've been in for maybe a little more than two months.

And I think the play has evolved in the classroom. I know, speaking from my classroom, we were most afraid of my kitchen area. It's like, "Oh they're sharing all the items and this and that," but we didn't want that to effect what our goal was. And that was to build collaborative play. I think also this pandemic has also given some children the opportunity to build this wall against being next to other children and playing with other children as well.

And we found that some children had that difficulty even being on screens. It was hard to look for their friends and say, “Hi!" and, "Oh, look, what are you playing with?" We're still working on that now. And I see some of that come into the classroom, even with the children, having some space and children requesting to be just a little bit closer to their friends. But finding ways that they could still be included with safety measures in place, so that they could all see each other as they're playing. I like to have my tables in sort of a circle now. The last couple of weeks, we've experimented with different ways that the children can interact and collaborate, the best way that they could. And if it so happens that we can't keep space, they're children, they're learning, and we making sure we make sure that we sanitize toys, very thoroughly after each use.

And so that was something we had to think about at least in the kitchen area, because we wanted to stick to our goal of children collaboratively playing and being able to be free in their play, we had to give them that access. We have children who may not have that access at home. They may not have that access on the weekends and now they're getting it at school. And I think on a broader spectrum, thinking about the playground, that's another area. I think for a lot of our kids, some of their abilities to play on the playground, have been skewed a little bit. Given the pandemic, again, talking about where children live, what they have access to, health issues. We have parents afraid to take them out to the park. They may not have been around other kids like that.

And so I think we asked to take all of this into account. They're coming back into the classroom and reminding them. And again, I still do play sessions even though we're hybrid. So kind of saying, "Oh, this is something we do in a classroom. We all bring out a water bins and we have our toys that go inside again.” It's something else, mimicking what we're doing on-screen/off-screen in the classroom and not subtracting.

I think we had to rewire our minds again because we're thinking like, "Oh my gosh, we just want the kids to be safe. No we can't do that, no we don't want to have it this way." But I think as time is going on, we're learning this is okay, this is where we're going to do when it's over, you're going to have these sanitized, kids are going to wash their hands.

We want them to be able to still have those experiences. I think if there's separate all the time, how could we expect them to collaboratively play? We need some of our children to be right next to their peers. They need to be able to see, it's not just about hearing. It's not just some watching. It needs to be that combination as we're modeling as well, and for us too, getting our own items. Sure, we have on gloves; yeah, we're rolled in Playing out too. And time to make this as natural as possible, to make this somewhat like where we were. I think being in a classroom, a lot of us struggled in the beginning to say, how was this going to be like, where we were before? I'm in a room that doesn't have toys on the shelves, everywhere.

However, how can we recreate some of the experiences we had before? How can we make this with this access to toys that they can go and grab? Because we want children to be well-rounded in the classroom. We want them to explore different toys. How can I make that available every time I come in, every time I stepped foot in this room? How am I shifting and scaffolding their place still, even if they only have two figurines? So I think even with the limits, I think teachers are working really hard and I think we're doing well. We're getting there to having these children play, and build on their play games, and help them to navigate the classroom even given some of the constraints we have. But, I think they're learning. Every day they're learning. So I think it's going well so far.

Michele Finkelman:
I'll tell you what I'm really worried about. And that is, there's a lot of talk about what children are missing out on, having missed out on school in terms of their academic and their cognitive development. And what I'm worried about is that when we're back in schools, and children come back into the classrooms, and the elementary schools and the middle schools, and even the high schools— that the push is going to be to have kids sitting and engaging in academic activities because they need to catch up. And I think that there's a danger; and that we're going to forget that what's really important right now is to support children's social emotional development. And that we have collectively lived through a trauma together and our children have lived through a trauma and yes it's important.

And I have a school student who's a junior this year. And I'm feeling, as a parent, the pressure of “what did he miss out on? What have our children not learned that they should have learned while they were away from school?” But more important than that, we need to think about what children are learning about how they can cope with adversity, about how they can manage trauma, about how they can regulate themselves when they're feeling stressed and upset and scared and worried. And it's going to be really important when kids go back to school to put the focus on their social emotional development, and their wellbeing and play is a part of that. Non-structured time, the ability to interact with the world, to interact with other people, “to play” is going to be really key to the children's resilience when they come back to school. It’s how they problem solve, it's how they cope, it's how they learn about the world around them. It's how they develop symbolic thinking and abstract thinking.

The one thing I would say, we really need to think about what children are going to be doing when they're coming back to school, and allow them the space to engage in the healing that play is. And that's where the resilience, I think, is going to come from.

Shondra Davis:
I love what you just said, Michele, this notion of resilience being kind of this static thing that people have, or don't have. It's really about, unfortunately, difficult experiences that give us an opportunity to practice. And as much as I would never ever wish this pandemic on myself and all of us again, it really has been an opportunity to practice ways of being that we might not have been practicing collectively, right? Because we, as a country, as a planet, have experienced a collective trauma.

And so, as Michele was speaking, when she was speaking about “how do we deal with adversity? What skills have children developed? What skills have we, as adults developed, about how to be with difficult situations?” And play is a very fantastic way of practicing those skills and being present with it without it weighing you down, right? Because it's in play that you can have catharsis, it's in play that you can have, like she said, symbolic play, symbolic thinking, metaphorical insight happens in play that doesn't always happen when we're linear and when we're logical.

We need that opportunity to have pretend play. We need the opportunity for cooperative and collaborative engagement with others, where we spontaneously make up rules and we decide what works and doesn't work, because that helps us see the other as an equal when we have to negotiate. That's what's happening in play, and we want centralize those learnings because that's what makes us good adults, right? When we have learned those skills and practiced those skills. And play as a voluntary activity, we come to play, we want to have fun, we want to explore. And in that process, we're learning; and when we learn involuntary activities where there is fun, it sticks in a different way than when we're engaged in compulsory activities where it's kind of rote and it feels dry. It's not the same.

And so, one of the things, I think, that I like about thinking about play and resilience is that, they are just like organically intertwined that when you're engaged in play, you get to work on those difficult things and master them in a way that you don't always get to do in "real life." Play for a child that might be shy, that might be afraid, gets to pretend to be brave and gets to be the hero. You don't get to do that in real life. So they start to practice the skill set that they wouldn't ordinarily get to engage in. And that's what builds resilience. All of those pieces together is what builds resilience, and it's dynamic and ever changing.

I like thinking about play as central to resilience and that we all need it, but we give permission to kids to play. And so how about we give permission to ourselves as well to play more, to just be more alive and be more creative and face the challenges that we all have to deal with in different ways.

Mila Myles:
Thank you to our guests, Shondra, Michele and Pleshette for joining us today to learn more about their work and Harlem, check out jewishboard.org. Lastly, remember that you are not alone. If you or any loved one who lives in NYC needs mental health services and support, call our non-emergency intake line at 1-844-ONE CALL and check out the descriptions in this podcast, and we'll provide a few of the services that we talked about during this podcast as well as a few others. Thank you for coming today y'all.

Michele Finkelman:
Thank you.

Pleshette Carr:
Thank you.