While they wait (Mientras esperan)

While they wait (Mientras esperan)

While they wait (Mientras esperan) 898 342 Lavinia Hirsu

Significant experiences and early childhood in the pandemic confinement

By Nadia Altamirano

A message from Whatsapp appears on my phone. A “click” reveals an image of Ana who is sitting down, I see her from her waist upwards. Her arms surround the body of Anita, her daughter, who is one year and five months old.

From her side, Ana only sees the black screen while Anita fidgets. Suddenly, the sound of an ocarina is heard and it draws the attention of the little gir, who in seconds becomes still and then looks for the origin of a sound she has never heard before.

This is how one of these different online reading sessions begins, aimed at early childhood as part of a project called “While they wait” (Mientras esperan). The sessions provide stimulation through poetry to create meaningful experiences for audiences from 0 to 3 years old.

The sound of the ocarina is an invitation to enter the poem about a mischievous wind. On the screen that mother and daughter observe, darkness gives way to reveal the yellow colour of a sheet of paper that little by little becomes distant because of that mischievous wind. Slowly my face appears, emerging from the plants that serve as background.

When a pandemic state was announced, along with an immediate request to stay at home, in Mexico —the country where I was born and currently live in—, a wave of online activities aimed at all audiences created an overflow in social media networks. Groups, institutions, civil and private associations, cultural centres, organisations and artists hurried to shelter us —as Ana does with Anita—, in our own confinement, perhaps so as not to feel the slowness of time that waiting brings.

A variety of instructions were the highlights of each of the prerecorded or live videos that were broadcast along with the use of “essential” materials to fulfill the aim of the activity. At the same time, music, oral narratives, read alouds, and other scenic proposals were rapidly disseminated. It was logical that artistic and cultural products in video format should be a product of passive consumption in such a situation. No utopian future had made us think about such a situation; therefore no one was prepared. The premise was to bring a little comfort, encouragement, distraction and entertainment to what was happening.

The poem continues resonating with my voice and Anita looks carefully at her mother, who is watching the screen. “Ana, look at your daughter,” I indicate. At the moment when Ana’s eyes fall on Anita’s, they both return their gazes to the screen. It is an action as subtle as if the mother had extended her hand to her daughter to lead her to where she is.

During this time, families who have access to watch these videos, have adapted and tried to copy the activities to maintain contact with culture and art. The audience under three years of age, have also continued to discover their environment but now there is a difference: the absence of interaction with their peers, the absence of the outdoor environment and of cultural and artistic incentives.

Covering that absence means waiting. And waiting, at this stage was, and is, like a rivulet about to be evaporated by the sun. It is a transformation, a growth in the absence of experiences.

“The wind plays”, I say, while I blow into this two-dimensional world created by the screen. I signal to Ana her participation as a way to turn that breath into something three-dimensional so she blows on Anita’s hair, who moves her knee while smiling.

All of the above has been the motivation to reflect on how to bring to a young audience an alternative experience within their screen lives in which they can be more active. An experience where the adult next to them accompanies them in play, interaction and dialogue, relinquishing control. Where screen time can be paused so that the girl, boy or baby, together with their companions can connect with their gaze, among many other things.

This was the reason why “While they wait” (Mientras esperan) was created in April 2020, to help with activities that generate significant experiences. The poetic word, the read alouds and the scenic oral narratives are the base, while the video calls or telephone calls become the vehicles of connection with girls and boys who wait for everything to get back on track.

The wind brings to the screen an illustration of a story. I read. I make sounds. Ana holds her daughter who is standing on her lap.

The sessions are tailored and of short duration to make sure the objective is met. Only one session a week is held per participant, leading to a list where other families await their turn. The process consists of contacting the adults before the session and informing them of the importance of their participation and interaction in these sessions because it is the accompaniment, the body contact and the play between them that will make my presence more than a voice screen projecting images.

In addition, I offer suggestions and recommendations for before, during and after the session, for example in case of unforeseen events such as internet or electricity failure, and suggestions are offered to ensure the child’s experience is not truncated and closes in the best way possible.

A playground song becomes a hand that moves to say “see you soon”. The image on the screen fades into darkness. I listen to Ana singing the chorus of the song while she gives Anita a big hug. The volume of my voice drops. One more click and the session is closed.

“While they wait” (Mientras esperan) is a project that joins the many proposals seeking to maintain commitment and quality for this important audience of young children. The above session is a sample: one-year-old Anita represents the laughter of the girls and boys under the age of three that I have to read to.

September, 2020.

Tepoztlán, Morelos. México

Note: All names have been changed and participants approved the publication of the photographs for this text.