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The power of play: With costumes and crafts, Baltimore County parents find ways to keep kids engaged

Erica Palmisano, a Lutherville resident who during the switch to virtual learning developed her own way to keep her kids, Juliet (pictured) and Alexander (fifth and third graders), engaged in their school work: through her character Ms. Permisano, the principal of the fictional Gray Cat Elementary School (named for the kitten they got last year). Ms. Permisano keeps her kids in line by threatening to make an appearance in their virtual classes if they misbehave.
Erica Palmisano, a Lutherville resident who during the switch to virtual learning developed her own way to keep her kids, Juliet (pictured) and Alexander (fifth and third graders), engaged in their school work: through her character Ms. Permisano, the principal of the fictional Gray Cat Elementary School (named for the kitten they got last year). Ms. Permisano keeps her kids in line by threatening to make an appearance in their virtual classes if they misbehave. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

When Erica Palmisano’s kids got the news there would be no in-person school last March, they thought they were getting an impromptu vacation.

“At first they were excited. I’m sure a lot of kids were,” the Lutherville resident said.

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“Then it starts to get boring, then we started to hear about people we knew getting the virus. … It went from something fun and exciting to something scary and kind of alienating.”

Enter Ms. Permisano: Palmisano’s alter-ego, an amalgamation of her grade school teachers in the 1980s with her Ogilvie home perm, gaudy costume jewelry and a plaid shawl.

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It’s been an ongoing gag in her family for the past year, Palmisano said. Since her third- and fifth-graders can’t learn in person at Stoneleigh Elementary School, Palmisano created a fake school — Gray Cat Elementary School, named in honor of their new adopted kitten. She printed T-shirts repping the fictional institution, although her 9- and 11-year-old have refused to wear them.

If they don’t pay attention during virtual classes, Palmisano, who is able to work from home as the spokeswoman of Baltimore County Public Library, warns that Ms. Permisano might make an appearance to their classmates. And every morning, they pledged allegiance to their kitten.

Erica Palmisano sits with her daughter, Juliet. Erica, a Lutherville resident who during the switch to virtual learning developed her own way to keep her kids, Juliet and Alexander (fifth and third graders), engaged in their school work: through her character Ms. Permisano, the principal of the fictional Gray Cat Elementary School (named for the kitten they got last year). Ms. Permisano keeps her kids in line by threatening to make an appearance in their virtual classes if they misbehave.
Erica Palmisano sits with her daughter, Juliet. Erica, a Lutherville resident who during the switch to virtual learning developed her own way to keep her kids, Juliet and Alexander (fifth and third graders), engaged in their school work: through her character Ms. Permisano, the principal of the fictional Gray Cat Elementary School (named for the kitten they got last year). Ms. Permisano keeps her kids in line by threatening to make an appearance in their virtual classes if they misbehave. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

“We’ve had all of these serious things happen in the past year,” she said, noting the coronavirus and a tumultuous political landscape that led to an attempted siege of the Capitol Jan. 6.

“Adding levity to any of this is very helpful.”

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It’s been nearly a year since the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life in Maryland, with government orders limiting in-person social interaction and confining people to their homes.

And Baltimore County Public Schools students, like in most other state jurisdictions, are still learning over the internet, separated from their classmates, as school buildings remain closed.

Kids need consistency and predictability “in order to function to their best ability,” said Dr. Rachel Altvater, a Catonsville psychologist and play therapist.

“Not really knowing what’s going on fully [and] all of these scary things can really make a child feel worried, unable to focus, ultimately having behavior and emotional difficulties,” Altvater said.

The notion behind play therapy, which Altvater practices at Creative Psychological Health Services, located on Rolling Road, is to use a medium that comes naturally to children to help them relieve anxieties and confront emotional challenges that are difficult to verbally express through hands-on activity, often using toys to externalize their feelings.

She says Palmisano has the right idea in using playfulness as a coping mechanism.

And technology, Altvater said, can be a tool in play therapy, given that children now are “digital natives.”

‘Playful connection’

Nora Thompson, a Towson resident, found a way to reach children through a virtual setting dubbed ZoomAroom: family-friendly videos, each with a different theme, created by an international collective of volunteer performers and educators.

Volunteers Val Garcia, Nora Thompson and Pam Minor perform the original children's song "Ants in My Pants" for Thompson's ZoomAroom web show, started at the outset of the pandemic.
Volunteers Val Garcia, Nora Thompson and Pam Minor perform the original children's song "Ants in My Pants" for Thompson's ZoomAroom web show, started at the outset of the pandemic. (Courtesy of Nora Thompson / Baltimore Sun)

The program has been described as a combination of Sesame Street and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in, a comedy show from the late 1960s, said Thompson, a former pre-K teacher who for 25 years was director of education and community enrichment at Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

“You have music, you have dance, you have yoga, you have puppetry — there are some crafts,” she said of ZoomAroom. “You have a little bit of everything.”

The episodes, all available at www.facebook.com/zoomAroomcrew, range from educational to silly: In one, wildlife educator Valerie Garcia uses a python to illustrate the 6-foot distance health experts recommend people put between themselves and those nearby to prevent disease spread.

In another, ventriloquist Pam Minor uses puppetry, song and dance to convey the restlessness of being stuck at home.

The goal is “really just being able to bring fun and stress relief through music and skits,” Thompson said.

Eric Energy, played by Ellicott City Eric Krupkin, conducts an experiment with frozen carbon dioxide in his virtual science studio, assisted by his sons, 12-year-old Micah Krupkin, or "Max Energy," and Levi Krupkin, 10, also known as "Lightning Levi."
Eric Energy, played by Ellicott City Eric Krupkin, conducts an experiment with frozen carbon dioxide in his virtual science studio, assisted by his sons, 12-year-old Micah Krupkin, or "Max Energy," and Levi Krupkin, 10, also known as "Lightning Levi." (Courtesy of Nora Thompson / Baltimore Sun)

There are also cockroach races, stilt-walking, arts and crafts, science experiments with Eric Energy of the Eric Energy Science Show, wolves from the Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania, and educational clips from volunteers as far away as Morocco and France.

“Part of our hope is that through these conversations, that we’re adding something positive for children and we’re just doing something good for our community,” Thompson said.

And it’s important for parents to be engaged in that, too, she added.

“Make sure you’re signing with your kids, reading with your children — all of these things really matter,” she said.

Altvater said that especially for children under mental or emotional stress, finding playful outlets as a family can help children fulfill two of what she calls the three daily pillars of emotional wellness: social connectedness, pleasure and accomplishment.

“That playful connection is so powerful,” she said. “It can be really helpful for parents to enter that space with them too.”

In Palmisano’s home, the silliness has been a stress reliever for her family.

“The humor always turns into something,” she said. “Whether it’s reminding them to do their homework, whether it’s laughing or talking about other things — whether it just breaks up the day.”

It’s a tough time for everyone, she says, and she feels lucky.

“We’re very lucky, but we’re trying to find humor in what’s going on,” she said.

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