How to Create a Soft Start with Social Distancing

Photo of a young, solitary girl building with blocks. Text says "Soft Start with Social Distancing."

How can we re-imagine a soft start for social distancing in classrooms? This morning routine is critical for community building and can be adapted for social distancing with a few small tweaks.

Like it or not, many of us need to incorporate social distancing into our teaching this year. This definitely puts a kink in many of our normal plans – it’s hard to envision centers, partner work, and soft starts with social distancing.

When I first started hearing about students sitting 6 feet apart and not sharing materials, I was devastated. My school day is based on community building, sharing, and partner work. I strive to help my students learn from one another and to be empowered by choice throughout the day. It’s hard to envision student choice without shared materials and working with others. Every time I think of it, my heart starts racing and my brain gets foggy.

Can you even do a soft start with social distancing?

I decided to tackle this bit by bit – and create a very tentative plan that might need to be tweaked as the year goes on. (My school is one of those that has not yet announced plans – which is fine, because I suspect the plans will change as we move through the year anyway.)

Because a soft start morning routine is a non-negotiable part of my day, I decided to start planning that first. A soft start involves starting the school day with minimal student tasks, replacing those with opportunities to settle in to the school day at a slower (and more social) pace. I explain soft starts in more detail in this post. Obviously, a soft start with social distancing needs to look a bit different…

I’ll walk you through my thought process about this new socially distant soft start structure in this post. Like me, you may find that there are many activities that lend themselves to a soft start with social distancing. My state and school guidelines have not been announced (yet.) So I based my plans on typical guidelines I’ve seen in other states and schools: students six feet apart, no shared materials, masks and lots of sanitizer. Your school expectations may be a bit different, which will influence your decisions.

Where do I even begin?

First, remind yourself why you value a soft start to your school day. I use this routine so my students can ease into the day and to add to my classroom community. This will be even more important during this unusual school year. The social connections among peers and between students and teachers will be critical to foster.

Next, consider what you have typically used for a soft start (or other independent tasks): puzzles, books, drawing, games, a few toys… Can you make any of these things work for a soft start with social distancing? Here is what I’m thinking:

  • puzzles – Small puzzles can be done independently, but 100-piece puzzles.
  • books – Students can certainly read independently. Personally, I may try let students have more books than usually because they will probably change them less often.
  • drawing – This should be pretty easy to continue. You may need to pass out a stack of papers to interested students at the beginning of each week, or have stacks available in multiple places in the classroom to avoid crowding and lines. (Hint: I like to use misprints from the copy room – easy to come by and it doesn’t feel wasteful.)
  • games – Because of the social nature of most games, they may not be an option. Once I figure out some independent games, I may be able to reconsider.
  • toys – You may not be able to use many of the toys kids frequently used in the past. But, there may be some that you can bag up for individual use. (See below for more details.)

What else can I add?

Without socializing with games and toys my options will feel a bit flat for a few students, I suspect. So next, I considered new options (or variations) that I could add.

Use existing materials in new ways:

First up are some low-prep, low-materials ideas:

  • listen to reading – If you have iPads, this might be an option. But I also need to remember that after the spring distance learning, I had parents request less time on iPads (understandably).
  • poetry notebooks – Students could read or illustrate poems from shared reading.
  • writing – Students can add to their writing (or illustrations) during this time. As another option, kids can “make books” using blank paper folded in half and stapled. You could continue to foster community building by sharing their books during writer’s workshop or morning meeting.
  • white boards – If you have white boards and markers in your student supplies, students can draw in the morning.
  • painting – Once students know the soft start routine, you might add water color paints as an option (with that good old stack of scratch paper!) You can pick up paints during the back-to-school sales.
  • creating with scratch paper – (Seriously, there are so many fun uses for scratch paper!) Let students use their scissors, glue sticks and markers to create all kinds of fun things. If you are really brave, you could offer individual rolls of clear tape, after carefully teaching the procedure of using tape without wasting it. I have had students actually creating dresses and cell phones with scratch paper and tape! It’s fun to see what they come up with.

Set up some special materials:

You might also want to add some activities that feel less academic:

  • small bags of blocks – If you have building blocks (Legos, wooden blocks, connecting cubes, place value blocks, popsicle sticks, tangrams, dominoes), you could divide them into several bags or plastic boxes. Each child can build independently at their own desk/table spot and friends can admire from afar.
  • pipe cleaners – When my kids were young, we discovered the joy of pipe cleaners. Kids can twist them to create all kinds of fun shapes and designs. You could create small kits with pipe cleaners (or Wikki Stix) for students to create with.
  • individual play dough containers – You can buy small cans for each child or make your own from scratch. (It’s cheap and easy – I love to do this. Store it in a small plastic dish or baggie and it will last for a long time.) Let kids make designs with pencils or popsicle sticks for added fun.
  • word searches, mazes, color by number sheets, or coloring pages – You can find these on-line and print them. All of these can be done independently. As a bonus, many kids find them enjoyable!
Photo of a color by number page that can be chose by students as part of a soft start.

How can you organize all the options?

This will vary from school to school – based on safety guidelines and resources available. If your students aren’t allowed to share materials even with you cleaning between uses, you may want to have students make selections for a full week, or limit them to materials they already have in their workspace (such as their whiteboard, books, and drawing materials).

Another option is to create individual grab-and-go containers of materials. For instance, use a pencil box to create individual Lego kits. Students will quickly grab a kit and return to their desk with it. To eliminate crowds, you might spread the storage throughout the classroom. For instance, have 2-3 Lego kits on a shelf near the door and 2-3 more on a shelf across the room.

You could even assign kids a storage location. So, you might place red dots on 4-5 desks and label a storage space with a red dot. Those kids can grab supplies from that location. Kids with a blue dot would grab supplies from a different location in the classroom.

If you are short on supplies or space, you can create 4-6 kits of these “fun” materials and students can choose from them. You will likely want 3-4 more kits than you will have students, so each child has a choice.

What other things do you need to consider?

Remember to allow students to choose their activity. There is so much power in letting students make choices. A sense of control will be more important than ever during this crazy time.

Choice is also important because not all students enjoy the same activities. As you learn more about your class, add choices that match their preferences. This may especially be true for the more active students in your class (since they are less likely to enjoy quiet drawing and reading). If you are not able to get Legos, dinosaurs, or blocks for them to play with, you might consider letting them bring one small toy from home. It is important that this feels like a comfortable and enjoyable start to the day for all students.

During the first weeks of school, you will need to model and rehearse the procedures for the soft start and social distancing activities frequently. Some things you might teach include how to:

  • first complete morning tasks (such as emptying backpacks and doing attendance)
  • use each material (getting it out, using it, cleaning up) get materials while social distancing
  • stay in your own space
  • think carefully before choosing an activity and stick with it (because changing tasks makes social distancing hard)
  • choose a task from your own materials (ex: white board, book bag, poetry notebook) if you get tired of your first choice
  • show off your work to friends while staying in your space
  • admire a classmate’s work without getting too close

How do you start?

Ease into it. The first day of school, you might not offer a choice – simply provide a coloring page or play dough. (I like to make magic play dough for the first day – and this is perfect for working in your own space.) The second or third day you might switch to a different simple choice, such as a maze or blank paper to draw on. Then, by day four or five, allow students to choose among those two activities.

After a few days, you can add another task. You might introduce how to use the new material (such as the white board or blocks) the day before, in the afternoon. Then when students arrive, they can choose from three familiar activities. Continue teaching and adding new choices every few days until you have your basic options available for students.

When students are able to choose from familiar activities, you may want to add some visual reminder of the choices. You could use an anchor chart on larger paper or hang some little cards with pictures of the choices. This will allow students to make choices independently each morning. You can get the morning routine cards shown below for FREE from my store, or make your own. Using cards with photos of your students can also be fun and powerful.

Photo of morning routine cards that offer the following choices: do a puzzle, make stuff, color, play a game, read books or draw.

As you can see, with a bit of creativity you can adapt many materials and activities you already have in your classroom so they work for a soft start with social distancing. I honestly feel much better about this as I typed it up. Hopefully it has given you a few ideas and alleviated a bit of your stress, too.

If you have any other suggestions for socially distant soft start ideas, I’d love to hear about them in the comments! 

Learn more about classroom routines:

Photo of a young, solitary girl building with blocks. Text says "How to Create a Soft Start with Social Distancing."

2 thoughts on “How to Create a Soft Start with Social Distancing

  1. Hi! I just want to say I love your blog!! Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and I really agree with your teaching philosophy and am excited to read every post. Thank you for also sharing about distancing learning or returning to school this fall with current pandemic. They are so helpful! I am returning to K after my mat leave and have found your information so valuable. Thank you again!

    1. I’m glad you have been enjoying my posts and finding them helpful. It is such an unpredictable time in the education world right now – and envisioning the various possibilities helps me wrap my brain around it, at least a bit. Enjoy the last little bit of time at home with your little one and have a great (creative) school year!

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