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Adapting to Change: a Play-Based Program Thrives in a Pandemic

At Phebe Anna Thorne, ‘Learning to Play, Playing to Learn,’ COVID-style.

“Learning to Play. Playing to Learn,” is not merely a motto. It’s the heart and soul of the Phebe Anna Thorne School, located on the beautiful Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College campuses. Thorne is still all about creating an engaging, fun social place for children to learn, and is still—even in this time of COVID—giving the children the most valuable part of the preschool experience: meaningful time with each other to play and learn, and to grow as individuals, as friends, and as a social community.


Across all programs, children and staff are wearing masks, social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing, and making use of new and existing outdoor spaces to reimagine what the school experience can be. “The pandemic has made clear that there is a necessity for people to collaborate, be creative and flexible,” says Amanda Ulrich, Director of Phebe Anna Thorne School. “Those are all skills that we are teaching through play.”


The curriculum of Thorne’s child-centered programs for toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners is built upon proven research showing that play enhances children’s problem-solving and social skills. This basis of free play in early development instills in children a foundation for mastery of academics and life skills as they grow. During the pandemic, play has continued to be the cornerstone of the program—it has just taken some careful planning to keep everyone safe, and tailoring the experience based on what children can do developmentally.


“Social distancing for a three-year-old looks different than social distancing for a six-year-old,” says Ulrich. “Teachers are working creatively to support children where they are.”




In the preschool, this means adding an outdoor classroom to complement their already large playground, and using the college campus, maze, tented areas, duck ponds, and nature paths to enhance the day. Outdoor sinks have reduced the need to go inside, and creative teachers have figured out ways for children to play together at a distance, with the addition of toys like pool noodles, carpet squares, and hula hoops.  


“Our field classroom and playground are active with happily engaged children. Connections are happening and friendships new and old are blossoming. Children have responded to our new routines and have done such a wonderful job wearing masks,” says preschool teacher Julie Carlson.


The Kindergarten, located at Haverford College, has also made more use of its outdoor resources. Morning meeting now takes place on the steps of the Cricket Pavilion, outdoor reading centers in their self-titled “orchard,” and walks on the Nature Trail are part of the daytime routine.


Through play, children learn to develop stories and sequences, to collaborate with peers and flexibly integrate their ideas. They solve spatial problems, estimate, and plan as they build, and learn to cope with frustration when plans don’t work. This development of flexibility, problem-solving, and executive functioning skills is even more crucial in today’s uncertain world.


Because we have been building our class communities since the first day in September, moving between in person and virtual is really possible. We can adapt to change as the uncertainties of COVID unfold. Teachers are responding to children and are finding ways to make virtual connections that make developmental sense,” Ulrich tells us. “If and when we need to move to a virtual experience, the conversations and activities we offer will continue to focus on themes of friendship, feelings, self-advocacy, fairness, creative expression and learning about the wider world.”



She relates a recent virtual activity posted on their online platform Seesaw, where the kids were asked to make a cozy “den” on a rainy day—a place for themselves and their stuffed animals to play, read, and dream. Children were engaged in this activity and then shared the results with the class by uploading photos of their pillow forts and cardboard box nooks.


“Our families tell us that Thorne has been a source of joy and normalcy for their children during this stressful time and we too are reminded every day how precious and important this social experience is for the children we serve.”



The Phebe Anna Thorne School supports the Main Line Parent Community.

Learning to Play, Playing to Learn: The mission of the Thorne School is to provide play-based, developmentally appropriate child-centered programs for toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners.