For people and communities across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged and redefined the concept of “normal.” Priorities were shifted and plans put on hold, but we still moved forward – maybe just a little off kilter. For the youth at Great Salt Bay Community School, educator Erin Michaud aims to bring the balance back.
Previously a classroom teacher at Edgecomb Eddy, Michaud stepped away from the workforce to focus on family. “In raising my kids I fell in love with children’s movement and how they develop physically,” Michaud said.
With this freshly kindled passion, Michaud returned to education as a physical education and health teacher at South Bristol School and is currently completing her first year at GSB teaching K-5 physical education and K-4 health.
At GSB, Michaud said she found people who share her enthusiasm to engage students.
“(Physical education) doesn’t have to be rolling a ball out in a gymnasium. I like the outside the box thinking around here to approach what’s best for each and every one of our students,” she said.
Michaud recalled her own experience with physical education as a youth, “and being told I wasn’t strong enough or fit enough or I lacked hand eye coordination. I don’t want that for our children. My favorite saying is, ‘you are capable, you can do things, let’s find out what you can do.’”
The pandemic has placed many limits on what can be done, and Michaud raised a startling observation.
“I have noticed a serious disconnect between our children’s balance and coordination simultaneously with COVID,” she said. “There’s this weird phenomenon going on right now that I haven’t seen prior, but we see it across the board and it’s consistent, so it’s something we can work on.”
Accordingly, in her teachings with kindergarten and first grade students, Michaud focuses heavily on balance and spatial and body awareness with activities that include balancing on various outdoor structures. Of one of the most classic balancing exercises – learning to ride a bicycle – Michaud said a wealth of research indicates that balancing on bikes without the pedals is significantly more effective than trying to pedal on a bike that provides stability through training wheels.
“Anything to get our younger generation on two wheels balancing I am all about,” said Michaud. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment and sets them up for success. When you can set a child up for success in a safe atmosphere, they will be so much more likely to take risks – safe risks – in the future.”
Michaud said this approach also helps to establish a connection between her and the students. “I’m putting them on something that could be scary and I’m showing them they could be successful. That develops our relationship. So when they fail, say, throwing a ball accurately, they know it’s a safe space to fail, and then we’ll work on being successful.”
Through Michaud’s efforts, GSB recently received a $5,000 grant from All Kids Bike – a nonprofit on a mission to teach every child in America how to ride a bike in kindergarten physical education class – for 25 balance bikes for kindergarten and first grade students to learn how to safely ride as well as general etiquette and rules of riding on trails and roads. The bikes will be used in the school’s upcoming Bike Rodeo, an annual event held in the GSB parking lot with different stations simulating riding conditions for students to practice skills.
“Prior to the pandemic, I taught 98% of my classes in the gym,” Michaud said. “The pandemic hit and kids could not be within three feet of each other, they could not have accelerated breathing, they couldn’t even have moderate to vigorous heart rate – which is literally my job, to elevate their heart rate.”
Instead of turning to teach at a desk in a classroom, Michaud took the kids outside. “We built forts and we navigated and cleared trail systems. We played baseball for the first time in forever! We did a lot of the same activities, just outdoors. It’s pushed our boundaries and our boxes and put us in that uncomfortable space where everything grows. When we’re uncomfortable, we grow. And it makes us creative. I talk to the kids about this all the time.”
During the start of the pandemic while teaching in South Bristol, Michaud would pick up bicycles that families are no longer using and give them to children in need. In just three months, she “re-homed” 63 bikes.
“I hope this can start again,” Michaud said. “Kids grow out of bikes just as fast as they grow out of shoes. I just hope to get everybody on bikes! It’s a really great way to exercise your heart and your brain and get outside.”
(“Learning Together” is a monthly feature by the Great Salt Bay Parent Teacher Organization. GSB PTO supports students in their activities and aids staff and school programs. Membership is automatic for all parents, teachers, and administration. All meetings for the 2021-22 school year will be virtual and take place the first Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. For more information, go to greatsaltbayschool.org/pto and follow GSB PTO on Facebook and Instagram.)