Building Relationships through a Pandemic

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

By Alix Tonsgard and Laura Diaz

Building and maintaining trusting relationships is at the core of early education and care programs, whether part of a preschool, a social service agency, or a children’s museum. As DuPage Children’s Museum has continued our community outreach programming to vulnerable families in a pandemic, we have expanded and ultimately deepened our approach to building relationships. In the face of a global crisis, with normal communications patterns disrupted, our Partners in Play (PIP) program is still able to meaningfully impact the lives of children and caregivers through a previously underutilized path: texting.

The caregivers we serve often need support in recognizing the growth and development that takes place during open-ended play for young children (ages birth to three). Through a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), we created a program to take place in our Young Explorers exhibit gallery, originally designed for families with children under two, and intentionally redesigned to make child development information and milestones more visible.

We began with two cohorts of twelve families each, the first group selected by a social service agency and the second consisting of teen parents recruited from a support group. PIP was scheduled to take place over the course of one year, during which all families would attend monthly sessions at the museum.

The first few PIP sessions were designed to establish trusting relationships between museum staff and caregivers. Once families—some first-time museum visitors—became comfortable, sessions became more content-focused on specific aspects of young children’s development, such as memory, communication, and fine motor skills.

Two months into the program, COVID-19 hit and the museum closed. How could we keep these families engaged in meaningful and accessible ways ? We started group-texting families twice a week with a friendly greeting (“Hi, how are you doing?”) and a simple activity that could be done at home. We also called them individually from time to time just to connect and hear about what life during COVID-19 was like for them. We enlisted the help of a particularly outgoing PIP mother who helped spark replies and conversations among the families. Initially it was difficult to stay connected with teen parents. However, we learned that by postponing the text drop from mid-afternoon to around 7-8 p.m., when bedtime was near and they might finally be able to pick up their phones and relax on the couch, our messages got greater response.

The more we learned from texts and phone calls, the more we were able to tailor PIP activities, developed to take place in a carefully designed museum environment, to new realities—a home, often with other family members, including children of all ages, milling around. One text from a PIP staff member showed a picture of her own two-year-old who had decided to dump every single toy on the floor while Mom was on a Zoom work call. Not only was everyone able to share a laugh about what life is like “working from home,” but PIP staff suggested parents turn messes like this into   clean-up and sorting activities, perfectly appropriate for young children.

The response has been incredible. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, social service home visits paused and other organizations scrambled to come up with a plan for how to work with families from home (both the provider’s home and the caregiver’s home). At this time, the PIP program was the only support some families had. Many PIP caregivers are frontline workers who do not have the privilege of working from home. Throughout the shelter-in-place period, they continued to do what they could to meet the basic needs of their families. Regular texts and calls from DCM staff gave them something to look forward to and focus on beyond their daily struggles.

“The upbringing of ages zero to three is beautiful but very difficult and… very tiring because they need full time care. Programs like PIP help us with our stress and are great and fun dynamics for our babies.

 For families who have low resources it is a huge support because we know that there are an infinite number of organizations…but sometimes they are unreachable for us. Now more than ever with the pandemic, we need to gather and share ideas with one another to help with the upbringing of our children from home.”

Almost every family has a phone, but some families don’t have access to computers or reliable internet connections, making Zoom-delivered programs not fully accessible. Many social service agencies already use texts to stay connected with families. We talk a lot about access, but the pandemic has presented us with a unique opportunity to take a harder look at the realities and needs of the families we serve—in the extended stay-at-home COVID-19 environment and after. We are grateful for how supportive IMLS has been as we tweak this program to meet families where they are in a time when they need us the most

At this writing, there are ten sessions left in our program. We are packing up all the PIP materials and in two scheduled pick-ups at the museum, will give five kits each time to program families. Each kit contains instructions, materials, and child development information for an activity. Later we will text them short videos of how to use these kits. We are looking forward to seeing our families again at pick-up time, but are also excited about the expanded possibilities for keeping these connections strong under any circumstances.

Alix Tonsgard is an early learning specialist and Laura Diaz is a community & family access specialist at the DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville, Illinois.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Read other articles in the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.”