Children’s informal learning at home during COVID-19 lockdown

John O’Neill and Roseanna Bourke, Massey University

Within a month of children returning to school in early 2020, the first case of COVID-19 disease in New Zealand was reported, the borders were closed to all except citizens and permanent residents, a four-tier national alert system was created, the Prime Minister announced that the whole country would move to immediate lockdown, 48 hours’ notice was given of the requirement to isolate in the household, a State of National Emergency was declared (the first since Christchurch City in February 2011), and the first COVID-19 death was recorded.

In the event of a lengthy lockdown, mass media accounts of the likely impact on children’s learning, both here and overseas, were gloomy: it was predicted that children would irrevocably miss out on important school learning and, moreover, that with all the best intentions, parents and caregivers could not be expected to do the work of professional teachers.

As often happens, not many adults stopped to ask children what their thoughts, feelings and experiences were, and a ‘deficit’ view of children’s lockdown learning was just presumed.

Listening to children’s voices

A joint research study by Te Kura o Te Mātauranga, the Institute of Education, Massey University and Rangahau Mātauranga o Aotearoa New Zealand Council for Educational Research took a different approach. Our starting points were that:

  • First, for the most part children are capable social actors in their childhood worlds;
  • Second, that children have the right to express their views on matters of interest to them in their lives, and to be listened to by adults; and,
  • Third, that no major decisions should be taken about children’s schooling without their ‘voice’ and ‘participation’. (Indeed, if our major educational research and development programmes such as Te Kotahitanga have taught us anything, it is that adults can learn much from listening to and acting on the insights of children and young people.)

We also designed our study using a more expansive and inclusive conception of learning than appeared to be the case in mass media discourse. We anticipated that household lockdown bubbles would provide children with multiple opportunities for informal learning as part of the ordinary everyday messiness of family life and their active contributions to that family life. Our working theories of children’s learning are broadly sociocultural and include concepts drawn both from te ao Māori and the western tradition. Learning on this view emphasises the importance of being able to navigate relationships and feelings, to form and articulate opinions, and being able to take decisions in one’s interests while negotiating the challenges of everyday life. To be sure, the number of hours children would spend in formal schoolwork, on or offline, would invariably decline during lockdown, but the more important question for us was, what might they gain in its place?

What we did

In terms 3 and 4 2020, we approached a number of primary and intermediate schools in the lower North Island and recruited 178 children in Years 4-8 to talk with us about their experiences of lockdown. In order to be confident that we would be asking the right sorts of questions, in the right way, we recruited a Children’s Research Advisory Group (CRAG) prior to the main study. The children in the CRAG gave us valuable insights on the perspectives that their peers might have about the idea of researching their experience, why they might decide to participate, or not, why it was important to ask children directly about their experience, and why the research might be of value.

Given the gap in time between lockdown and our interviews, we decided on a group art-making activity in each school to help us establish a relationship with the children we would be interviewing and also to facilitate their recall. Children produced collages of key activities or events from their time in lockdown (we consciously avoided using the term ‘learning’) alongside the adults who would be interviewing them.

The report: Learning during lockdown

In reporting the children’s experiences we were determined to represent their lockdown worlds in their words. The transcribed interview data were analysed as a team of more than ten researchers, and the codes and themes developed inductively using NVivo software. In writing up the themes we privileged the children’s own words on the basis that as adult researchers, policy makers and practitioners we need more practice in listening to them! The report is rich with direct quotations as a result.

We also wanted to make sure that the findings of the research were accessible and useable, by both children and adults. To this end, the research report is accompanied by a series of digital narratives that use the children’s words to illustrate each of the seven themes from the findings.

What emerges from the project as a whole is a strengths-based picture of children’s ability to self-direct and self-regulate their learning; being able to articulate and justify their choices and decisions about their learning; and their appreciation of the importance of feelings, relationships, routines and life events in their learning. Children could also tell us what lockdown had taught them about how they learn best at school and in the classroom. What we gained most as researchers from listening to children was a sense of the ‘freedom to learn’ that these children enjoyed during the very particular circumstances of the household lockdown bubble.

The full report and digital narratives are available at

John O’Neill is Professor of Teacher Education and Roseanna Bourke is Professor of Learning and Assessment, at the Institute of Education. They jointly research and publish in the areas of children’s rights, capabilities, student voice, and informal and everyday learning.

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