As with most trends, I discover (mind you, I’m a decidedly lame parent in her late 30s), I noticed this one first on my local Facebook group. I went something like this: ISO loving pod leader for a group of five three-year-olds this fall. Must be open about virus risk factors and willing to teach outdoors.
Then, I saw one such pod in action. As I jogged around my neighborhood, I peeked into a yard, and spotted a small group of masked two- and three-year-olds, huddled around a sand table as an energetic caregiver tried to prevent a few boys from grabbing the same shovel. She might have been a parent, but based on her age and patience level, I’m guessing she was a professional. And as for the kids, they looked calm, happy and like they were ready to get in plenty of socially distanced play before naptime.
It was clear. They were here. They were…poddlers.
Much has been made of the pod craze for school-age children, whereby kids in either the same grade or class team up, and parents hire a tutor (often to the tune of $125/hour) to either homeschool or supplement online school instruction. The benefits (safety, social interaction, individualized attention) and problems (economic inequity, an exclusion of children with special needs, an exodus from the public school system) have been debated ad nauseum. But I’d yet to see this applied to such a young preschool demographic.
To some extent, it’s semantic. After all, is there really a difference between what we used to call a play group and what we now call a pod? The difference, I think, comes down to if you are paying somebody to lead the pod (as opposed to parents sharing responsibilities) and if it is taking the place of traditional daycare, thus depriving local centers of tuition money and enrolled children. I’ve seen this firsthand in my daughter’s own wonderful preschool, which reopened in July with only six kids in attendance—when once they had a waitlist. Where was everybody else? Had they all podded up?
There are benefits, of course, to the fact that her own class can stay so small and insular. Yet I worry about the facility’s longevity, particularly since the teacher-to-student ratio is now something like 1:1.
Privately funded and woefully under-appreciated, daycares have always faced financial precariousness. And while some have benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, many have already used those funds, or have had to shutter. And then there’s the issue of pay, with most daycare employees—overwhelmingly women–earning, on average, $11.50 an hour, while risking their lives during a pandemic.
Which brings me back to the poddlers: Will all these adorable, shovel-sharing cohorts further threaten daycares and preschools—and make it even harder for parents who can’t shell out for private instruction?
I’m actually not here to knock the parents of poddlers. I think their creativity and dedication to addressing children’s social-emotional needs in a safe way is to be applauded. (I have tried to engage a three-year-old in Zoom circle time. It didn’t go well.) But I do think there’s a case to be made for supporting our daycares and incentivizing them (with—gasp—public funding) so they can pay their staff fairly, keep class size down and reopen safely and effectively, with more to offer than ever.