I began this research with 2 main focuses in mind: playful learning and peer-to-peer interactions. These were 2 of my passions in teaching, so it was natural to take a closer look at these. But as this school year began and this research started formulating, it became apparent that the pandemic was a HUGE factor in how I would teach and how students would learn. So, the 2 original focuses evolved and morphed into looking at the following components:
1. Play-based learning pedagogy
2. Frequency of student talk
3. Language complexity
However, some factors that were unique to this year because of COVID-19 had to be heavily considered when formulating my research design. I had to look at and consider the need for safety and health protocols that would change how students interacted while engaged in gameplay. Some of the factors that had to be considered for in-person learning and teaching were:
1. A reduction of synchronous learning time to 2.5 hours per day
2. Maintaining a distance of 6 feet apart with no physical contact
3. No shared materials
4. Revoking all outdoor activities while on campus.
5. A hybrid model of attendance
These in-person protocols challenged me to find ways to deliver academic content using engaging, age-appropriate, play-based learning experiences that effectively maintained health and safety protocols for in-person learning. At the same time, virtual learning was coupled with in-person learning or was a stand alone model of attendance for some of my students.
Virtual learning utilized teleconferencing programs to reduce the risk of exposure to the community. And as delivered lessons online, I, along with many teachers across the globe, had to redesign strategies, games and tasks initially designed for in-person peer-to-peer learning, collaboration, and interactions for the virtual learning platform (Kim, 2020). However, limited empirical research around the impact of play-based learning (PBL) pedagogy and how primary children experience play-based learning activities while engaged in distance-learning is available. Empirical literature centered on play-based learning pedagogy focused on lessons delivered in physical classrooms without social distancing parameters or limitations on sharing materials or wearing masks (Kim, 2020; Taylor & Boyer, 2020). Classrooms that integrated technology and PBL pedagogy focused on individual student performance on learning apps or the interaction students have while collaborating on educational apps or programs within the physical classroom setting (Miller, 2018; Thibaut et al., 2015). Those gaps in prior research led to this action research study to collect qualitative and quantitative data comparing the communication skills of first graders while engaged in play-based learning activities during virtual learning versus in-person learning contexts.