This Colorful, Heartfelt First Day of Homeschool Kindergarten Proves That COVID-19 Can't Steal Your Child's Joy
And with a little creativity and a whole lot of love, it can't steal yours, either.
Photographer Perry Vaile and her husband, Shawn, sold their home in March, moved into an ocean-side rental, and then—finally—closed on their dream house in North Carolina, which meant their eldest daughter, Ireland, could attend a local kindergarten this upcoming September. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, throwing a wrench into just about every component of that plan along the way. "At first, when I suspected the education system would be greatly impacted by the pandemic, I was in a tailspin of worry about what this would mean for my daughter's first year in school," she tells MarthaStewart.com. "We had uprooted our lives to get her into this kindergarten—and now this. The last thing I felt capable of was teaching a young, easily distracted human how to read."
Perry—who helms her eponymous wedding photography business—is her family's breadwinner; her husband has been a stay-at-home father for nearly six years, caring for the girls and managing the household while she works, whether from home in her picturesque office or abroad, photographing couples all over the world. And very suddenly—like so many parents across the country—she found herself in a new role as teacher, alongside Shawn. "We have all been with each other, 24/7, since March," she explains. "I would never have had time to homeschool if it hadn't been for the sudden postponement of almost my entire wedding season—and as hard as that was as a business owner, as a mother, I see this as an incredible opportunity to slow down and focus on my daughters in a way I usually would not be able to."
Though the realization that she and her husband would be responsible for overseeing Ireland's education didn't come without trepidation ("I gave it one good cry," she says), Perry decided to lean into Plan B. "Once I accepted that there was no way school could be what I'd imagined for her, I was able to get excited about finding ways to still retain the joy and whimsy amidst the uncertainty," she says. "Kids are resilient (perhaps more so than most adults!), so it's sometimes more about rewiring our expectations as their parents that makes all the difference."
That rewiring involved a great deal of creativity—something that radiates from Perry, a bold color, pattern, and décor enthusiast—and culminated in a vibrant first-day celebration to kick off Ireland's not-so-formal education. "My goal was to think like a five-year-old and consider what she would think was most exciting or fun, without throwing a ton of money or gifts at the day," she explains. "This wasn't about one-upping other parents or showing off something online: It was a very real personal choice to make lemonade out of lemons for our family. Planning this celebration gave us something to look forward to, a thrill of excitement, and happy, fond memories that continue to inform our experience of this year. This was something that 2020 couldn't take away from us."
Oh, the Places You Will Go
It all started with a blow-up globe ($14.99, amazon.com). "The globe was my first inspiration point, as my daughter's name is Ireland, and we really want to introduce her early to the idea that there is so much more out there than just her little town," says Perry. "We will be learning all about different places and people this year." The crawling rainbow balloon installation was created to look as though it was flowing up and out of the globe itself, she adds; a bubble machine brought a sense of whimsy.
Melt Away Your Troubles
On the front door, Perry hung a sweet sign from The Bees Knees Shoppe ($45, etsy.com), which conveyed a sentiment she hoped would permeate into the school space inside. "It all felt so intangible until we actually sat down for our first trial run day together at a table with a curriculum book," she shares. "The mystery and concern around how this would 'work' disappeared by simply beginning."
Walking to School
"I was sure to keep everything a secret so that when she 'walked' to school for the first time, she was truly surprised!" says Perry, noting that she and her husband Shawn wanted her daughter's first day to feel like a celebration. "I think we need to reshuffle our idea of celebrations as a luxury, and instead, see them as the emotional necessity that they are in such a difficult season. It doesn't need to cost a lot—it simply needs to be intentional."
Over the Moon
Both Ireland and her sister, Sunday, were "over the moon and talking a mile a minute" says Perry, of the porch debut. "My oldest's first reaction was to hug me immediately (a mother's heart needs nothing more!)," she shares. "They were so intrigued by how I made all the balloons and were desperate to bounce the giant globe."
A Special Outfit
Ireland's first day of kindergarten called for a special outfit; she wore a floral pinafore skirt from Lemon & Lucy, along with pink knee-high socks and yellow slippers.
A Meaningful Gift
"I bought Ireland a child's claddagh ring when I was in Ireland for a wedding last summer and wanted to give it to her for a special occasion—she wore it to her first day!" shares Perry.
Into the Classroom
Perry and Shawn converted a spare room in their new home into a classroom—"but plenty of homeschool parents simply teach on the couch or kitchen table or underneath an oak tree in the backyard on pretty days (the beauty of homeschool!)," she adds.
"We have a two-chair table for tasks that involve writing and a petite love seat for reading together. It's nice to have a place away from the activity center of our home," Perry continues. "I also have a small cabinet that holds all of our supplies in the same room so the homeschool paraphernalia doesn't take over the house. From counting blocks, Play-Doh, books, and more, it's all consolidated for easy access during our time together. Kindergarteners only need 60 to 90 minutes of dedicated teaching every day, so this is totally doable in almost any room where you have quiet—or you can get it done during a younger child's nap time."
Of all the thoughtful touches Perry and Shawn worked into Ireland's first day, the end-of-school confetti pop "might have been their favorite," she says. "There is something magical about tiny strips of paper thrown into the air."