Social distancing and Young Learners: Opportunity for creativity and critical thinking


Sara Davila is a Learning Expert at Pearson Education. She is a teacher, materials writer, researcher, and teacher trainer who has worked in a variety of contexts. In this article, Sara talks about social distancing and young learners, and shares a fun activity you can try with your students when your classroom re-opens.

It’s a confusing time for our students – especially younger learners who might not fully understand what social distancing means. In the near future, as classrooms slowly start to open, it will be our duty as teachers to keep young learners safe. We’ll have to do our best to maintain appropriate hygiene and distancing measures in the classroom. But it’s no easy task!

Alongside implementing new classroom rules and routines, we can also find new ways for our students to become more creative, analytical and critical thinkers. 

In this post, we’re going to look at some activities you can try in the classroom to help your students develop more awareness of their own social distancing practices and also practice those all-important 21st Century skills. 

Start a reflection journal

If you’ve been following Amy Malloy’s posts about mindfulness in the classroom, you’ll know just how useful it can be to help students deal with stress. As an addition to your classroom mindfulness practice, journaling can be a useful way to get your students to reflect on the day, or on the week, and how they feel. Here’s how you can implement it:

Very young learners

If your students are too young to write, or only have a very basic understanding of English, they can use drawings to describe their week. They should draw what they did and what they learned and then tell you how it made them feel. This will help students express themselves, work through their feelings and it will help alert you to any students who are struggling. 

When teaching online, students can share their drawings with help of caregivers via the learning management system or class forum. During regular class meetings, the teacher can display the images on screen and ask each child to give an oral description of the picture in their first language or in English.  

Young learners and teens

Can post short, simple statements about themselves online if they can select options from a menu. Writing 33 A2 (30-35)

Can understand short school-related messages in emails, text messages and social media postings. Reading 39 A2+ (36-42)

For students working at an A2 or A2+ level of ability, reflection journals can be more writing-focused (though there’s still nothing wrong with drawing, if students can explain to you what they’ve done). At the end of each day, or each week, have students spend time answering self-reflection questions related to their social distancing and learning. It’s a good idea to use who, what, when, why and how questions:

  • Who did you work with the most this week? 
  • What did you find difficult about social distancing?
  • Why was that?
  • When did you wash your hands?
  • How did you feel this week?

Be scientific and analytical

Journaling also presents us with an opportunity to introduce some additional analysis and critical thinking in our classroom – both of which are important 21st Century skills. Here’s an activity that relates to hygiene and social distancing that you can try with your younger students.

To preface the activity, it’s inspired by a creative idea from teachers in China who have made “social distancing hats” with their students. The hats – as you can see in this article – are designed to help students maintain a safe distance from each other while working together in the classroom. 

Not only is it likely to be quite effective, but it makes the otherwise difficult task of staying apart quite fun – and definitely funny to see. Spend a morning creating these hats using the arts and crafts materials you have to hand. While the hats can be as colorful, creative and fun as the children want, they should all have “wings” – a meter stretch of cardboard on either side of the hat that keeps students apart from other people.

So where do science and analysis come into it? 

The idea of the following activity is simple: For students to compare how well they were able to stay socially distanced throughout the day when wearing – or not wearing – their special hats. First, have students help you brainstorm to create a mind map with some non-socially-distanced behaviours. For example:

  • Touching someone
  • Hugging
  • passing a pencil
  • Sharing a drink
  • Putting a pen in your mouth

Then do the same for socially-distanced behaviors. For example:

  • Washing your hands
  • Staying apart
  • Smiling at a friend

Not only will this help students with vocabulary in English, but it will also help them think more clearly about how they should act in the classroom during this time. 

Next, you need a way for the students to measure how well they are socially distancing in class. The scientific data could be collected with a very simple tick chart like this: 

Social distancing and Young Learners

Have students complete the task when wearing their hats, ticking each time they notice themselves do one of the things on the chart. they should do the same when they are not wearing their hats.

Keep the records for at least a week, and then on regular intervals (e.g. Monday or Friday) make time to discuss the results as a group and consider how they can use the information to help improve their awareness of distancing and practice self-management. You even can then help your students calculate averages over time (if they are old enough). 

Discussion questions you can ask: 

  • How easy is it to remember distancing with the hat on versus off? 
  • What can you do to practice good distancing when you’re not wearing the hat? 
  • What advice do you have to share for distancing? 

If you would like your students to do this activity at home with their parents, you can have students share daily photos of journals, or report information in a class media space. Parents may find this a fun way to pass the time too. 

How these activities relate to the Global Scale of English

And for any English Teachers curious, the core skills you are working towards would include:  

  • Can write a few simple sentences about someone’s routines or habits, given prompts or a model. Writing GSE 38 (A2+)
  • Can talk about habits or daily routines in a simple way, given prompts or a model. Speaking GSE 32 (A2). 

If your students can do two or more of the following this may well be within their zone of proximal development:  

  • Can write a single basic sentence about daily routines and activities. Writing GSE 28 (A1)
  • Can answer simple questions about their daily routines using gestures and short, fixed expressions. Speaking GSE 29 (A1) 
  • Can describe their daily routines in a simple way. Speaking GSE 30 (A2) 
  • Can answer simple questions about habits and daily routines. Speaking GSE 31 (A2)
  • Can ask simple questions about habits and routines. Speaking GSE 33 (A2). 

Discover more GSE Learning Objectives. 

Do you have any fun activities you would like to try with your primary or secondary students? How are you dealing with social distancing and young learners? Let us know in the comments!

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