Virtual Learning for Young Students

Posted by Craig Leager on Apr 20, 2020 9:34:43 AM

Online instruction can present unique opportunities and challenges for students and teachers. This is certainly true for the youngest of our students and their teachers. 

In this edition of the series Making Online Instruction Work – Now!, we explore ways to support young students in virtual learning environments. 

The ideas offered here assume that young learners (ages 4-7) will either

  • participate in scheduled, synchronous online learning using a video conferencing tool, or 
  • watch pre-recorded videos made by their teacher with the support of a parent or older family member.  

The early grades provide foundational experiences for social, emotional, and academic development. We can use what we know about the developmental characteristics of young learners to thoughtfully plan their learning in online spaces.

We know that young learners

  • need rituals, routines, and repetition
  • learn through play
  • want to belong to a group
  • explore with curiosity
  • seek patterns in the world around them
  • construct meaning through stories
  • express themselves in a variety of ways

Establishing Rituals, Routines, and Repetition

Consistent schedules and routines create a sense of normalcy and comfort for young learners. Repetitious activities, stories, and songs all offer security. Online learning needs to provide the same. Think about a schedule for online learning that supports rituals and routines while balancing the shorter attention spans and physical needs of young students.

Consider these ideas when creating an online teaching schedule for young learners:

  • focus on the most important learning outcomes
  • chunk lessons into 5–10-minute blocks of time
  • share personal news and stories at a regular time 
  • read aloud daily to nurture students’ love of reading
  • facilitate shared reading daily to focus on specific reading skills
  • write “in front of” students daily to model grade level writing 
  • use word games that highlight word patterns or clusters to teach phonics
  • use a large calendar to capture key events each day and to illustrate upcoming key events, such as a special book or new song (use pictures)

Students can expect a particular flow of lessons and activities in your physical classroom daily, and so you want them to be able to do the same in their virtual classroom. You may want to divide your students into four or five smaller groups and then work with each group for 30 to 45 minutes a day. Focus on the quality of the time you have with your students rather than the volume of activities you complete.

Playing to Learn

Young children’s brains are developing rapidly at this age. Interacting with others and the world around them is far more natural for young children than listening passively. Play is their mode for learning. As such, finding ways to embed play in online learning for young learners is crucial.

Here are some ideas for including play in the online learning space:

  • play active games, like Simon Says or Charades
  • use word games, like The Alphabet Game or Going on a Picnic 
  • participate in pattern books or songs on YouTube, and add silly body movements
  • invite parents to participate with the students, and to continue these games at other times

Belonging to a Community

Young children want to be connected to a group. They seek belonging. Being part of a community provides young children with a sense of safety and comfort, while addressing many social emotional factors. Fostering a sense of belonging online is important, as well.

Try these ideas to develop a community where your young students can feel a sense of belonging:

  • implement daily morning meetings
  • use students’ names often 
  • celebrate birthdays and holidays
  • embed students’ photographs and work into daily rituals
  • use routines that ensure all students’ voices are heard
  • teach online “etiquette,” including good manners and kindness
  • use songs about sharing and friendship to further facilitate belonging and create joy (we’re especially partial to Raffi and Lois Ehler)
  • create special virtual events, like character days, virtual field trips, etc.

Keep in mind that parents of young children are often just as eager to belong and contribute to a community as their children!

Investigating with Curiosity

Curiosity is one of the key characteristics of young children. Asking questions is one of their strongest skills. They are constantly discovering new things to explore. This drive prompts students to investigate widely and allows them to develop deep knowledge on topics of interest. As such, inspiring curiosity through online learning is essential.

To build upon young learners’ curiosity, consider using:

  • question boards
  • mystery objects
  • scientific phenomena
  • items from nature
  • video clips
  • students’ interests
Seeking Patterns

Young children seek patterns in everything they encounter and observe. They sort, quantify, and measure everything possible. This natural tendency helps young learners develop mathematical understandings and scientific concepts, as well as fostering their language skills as they discuss their findings. Young students will continue to apply this approach as you teach them online.

Use your time online with young learners to promote pattern seeking by:

  • comparing objects
  • sorting collections based on different attributes
  • counting specific types of items
  • discussing the criteria students choose when sorting items
  • using names and words to search for patterns
  • affirming students’ efforts in pattern seeking
Constructing Meaning through Stories

Stories are an important way for young learners to explore big ideas, express emotions, and understand values. Students also learn new vocabulary, sequencing, causation, and syntax through stories.

Incorporate these types of strategies and resources into your online teaching:

  • read alouds using books that reflect your students and their community
  • diverse forms (e.g., poetry, fairy tales, fables, nursery rhymes, legends, etc.)
  • shared reading and writing experiences focused on grade-level standards
  • students’ writing about their reaction to a text, or their personal experiences
  • guided reading groups using online leveled text materials
Expressing Themselves

Young children benefit from opportunities to express themselves and their emotions. Students express their individuality and needs through a variety of modalities. By understanding how your students express themselves and encouraging them to represent their thinking in different ways, you are helping them build a foundation for learning, as well as connecting with others. Finding ways to honor this in the virtual learning environment is challenging, but critical.

Here are some ideas to use in your online teaching to encourage students to express themselves in a variety of ways:

  • drawing pictures to communicate about their day
  • building with blocks or other materials to demonstrate an idea
  • singing and dancing to retell a story
  • sharing a favorite toy or item
  • simply ensuring you hear every students’ voice, every day


Young students are curious about the world around them and thrive with active, engaging, and hands-on experiences. Whether you have been teaching online for years or are new to remote learning, you’ll find that young students need a different approach when it comes to virtual learning. Combining some of these ideas with your knowledge of the characteristics of young learners, your experience, and your awareness of your students’ needs will give you a great start to teaching young learners online. 

We'd like to hear about your experience! Tell us about it in the comments below, and take a look to see what's working for other teachers like you.

Coming Soon

Stay tuned for more information in the Making Online Instruction Work – Now! series. Our next edition will focus on supporting English language learners in the virtual learning space.

Topics: COVID-19, distance learning, "remote learning", Making Online Instruction Work - Now!, virtual teaching