Much of my 5-year-old son’s experience of virtual kindergarten can be defined by what he and his classmates do not do together. There is no hot potato. No duck, duck, goose. They never sing songs. They sit in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across town, at their desks, tables, and cardboard boxes. They try to identify the staccato “P” sound the teacher makes, puffing out her barely audible puffs of air. They hold white boards and pieces of paper, and try again and again to make the number three, while reciting, “Around a tree, around a tree, this is how you make the number three.” Toby often sighs and looks out the window. It can be a struggle to keep him online.
But the days when it is Toby’s turn for show-and-tell feel different. Sometimes he plans ahead, setting an object of interest next to his desk in his bedroom the night before. Occasionally, he waits to minutes before “showtime,” lifting different items from the floor of his room, studying them with an appraising gaze. Toby has shown: a fake X-ray of his hand made out of construction paper, cooking oil, and crayon; a papier-mâché volcano; and a Spider-Man doll. When he stepped away from the screen for a moment to use the bathroom, he left Spidey standing up in his place. While class went on, I remained on my stool just out of range of the camera and eyed the doll, Toby’s proxy in a skin-tight suit with molded plastic muscles. “Who is this child?” I wondered.
While much of Toby’s Zoom time with his kindergarten class is dedicated to the development of skills—and the occasional “Floor Is Lava” dance party—his teacher also sets aside two short sessions a week for the discursive, messy activity of show-and-tell. Depending on whose turn it is, the class swerves between science and sentimentality, consumerism and the category I think of as “things to cuddle with.” Although it may seem silly to watch a 5-year-old model a princess crown or get licked by her dog, the longer the pandemic goes on, the more I realize that show-and-tell has the potential to combat the soul-killing quality of the virtual classroom.
Why should show-and-tell matter so much? After all, the weekly bring-and-brag, albeit done remotely, seems to differ little from when I, as a 5-year-old in the 1980s, sat on a worn rug and held up a Cabbage Patch doll for all to see. So much else about kindergarten has changed. While I spent my mornings fingerpainting in an art corner or playing dress-up, most of my son’s education seems to be about learning to manipulate a series of interchangeable parts—moving pennies onto the squares of a ten frame, creating a chain of words that end in the letters -ox. Show-and-tell feels special.
But the history of education tells me it wasn’t always a parade of toys. As a pedagogical practice, show-and-tell has moved with the times. At its best, it offers students of all ages the opportunity to demonstrate enthusiasm and nerve, the underappreciated ability to “read a room,” all while describing an object of interest.
In 1954, a science coordinator for New York City’s public schools advocated for show-and-tell based on your “father’s occupation.” The fifth-grade daughter of a plumber might bring in “copper tubing, small Stillson wrench, solder,” for example. I like to imagine the drab postwar classroom, the dusty textbooks and newsreels run on a creaking projector, and the students’ excitement at the chance to examine real instruments from toolboxes and workrooms. After all, in a few short years the Soviets would launch Sputnik, the first human-made object to orbit the Earth, and politicians and educators would demand more science instruction for all grade levels, even kindergarten that sanctuary of “[s]ong, dance, rest and milk,” as one journalist described it. After all, Sputnik, a 184-pound aluminum sphere with four antennas that looked like “whiskers,” was probably made with a humble soldering iron, not so different from the ones found in a plumber’s case.
By 1973 the mood in schools had changed, and one educator, annoyed with a rigid approach to show-and-tell, made the case for spontaneous show-and-tell “happenings,” borrowing the word from the avant-garde art scene. Her pedagogy reflected the educational movement of the time toward “open classrooms,” where students did not sit at desks and receive direct instruction but mostly ranged about the room, free to let their interests drive learning. Sometimes a cabin built out of blocks (“It’s George Washington’s house!”) or a mouse drawn on paper might give the student an “a-ha!” moment—similar to the kind any artist might have—prompting the teacher to call the kids together to witness the fumbling efforts and newfound mastery of a friend.
Show-and-tell also offers immutable benefits. Since revealing to peers what interests us and why involves vulnerability—Will they laugh at me? Will they not like what I like?—show-and-tell has the power to prepare students for the tightrope walk that is every sustained act of expression. Even shy students, my son’s teacher tells me, can benefit from “having the stage” and time to share with others “what is special to them.” Toby’s teacher does not require students to do show-and-tell, but almost all want to, and over time she has seen how even the least confident child can grow more adept and at ease while speaking in front of the class.
Just as one student might be changed by show-and-tell, so might the group as a whole. In 2020, a team of scholars noted that over the course of a year of participating in the ritual, students seemed more masterful in their presentation, more apt to capture the interests of the class, and “interactions became more complex.”
It can also relieve the loneliness of the remote learner. More than anything else, my son misses being a child among many. Not since Toby was a toddler has he been with me so much. Toby and I use the same computer and we draw from the same lot of human experience. Lately, our books gathered from curbside pick-up at the library tend toward geology and geography, the history of the world written in the landscape. We take drives to look at road cuts. To make up for not allowing him to attend school in person, I offer him stones and names of stones—pyrite, limestone, granite—doing what parents have always done, making experiences out of what is available. Most days it doesn’t seem like enough.
From my stool somewhere near him during the hours he spends online with his class, I worry about how his social skills might atrophy. But then, Toby holds a white, palm-sized rock up to the camera of my laptop, and says, “It’s quartzite.” His teacher squints, murmurs approval, and asks for him to describe it. “It sparkles,” he says, and tries to think of the word refraction but gives up. Instead, he launches into the story of how he found it: the lonely river bank, the pile of broken rocks a rogue geologist might have left behind. He points out the stripe of dried algae down one side. Nearly out of breath with excitement, he looks at his teacher, the faces of a few of his classmates. All are silent, waiting for him to say more.
“I love that,” his teacher says finally. And somehow, after all these weeks of school, I know she means it.
After all the children have had their chance, my son’s teacher introduces three-dimensional shapes—so much physics for kindergarteners!—and asks the students what she is holding up, starting with a sphere. Toby doesn’t raise his hand. “I’m letting someone else answer,” he whispers to me. After a new friend names the shape correctly, he says loud enough for all to hear, “That looks like a plastic meteor.”
The year ahead hopefully will allow for a return to school almost like we used to know it, but for now, my son, and all the other children learning at home like him, have this—the intimacy of offering up what they love for the amusement of others. Of course, until the connection turns unstable, and someone calls out, “Hey, do-I-sound-like-a-robot?” and the kids all laugh their own robot laughs.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.