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Branford Parks & Recreation Toddlers Instructor Erica McNamara has created Miss Erica’s Toddler Videos on YouTube to share stories, activities, and much more with toddlers during the pandemic. The shows features McNamara in her home’s mini-classroom with the three McNamara children (that’s Benson, 6, at work in the background). The YouTube channel now has more than a dozen Miss Erica shows, and counting—and an appreciative and growing audience tuning in for more. Image capture from YouTube )
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When the pandemic closed the doors of the Branford Community House in March, Erica McNamara opened a digital window to her toddler classroom by creating Miss Erica’s Toddler Videos on YouTube.
The Branford Parks & Recreation toddlers instructor says if you told her a little over a month ago that she’d be in front of a camera instead of a classroom, she probably wouldn’t have believed it. But what started as a whim and an initial video has already grown into more than a dozen Miss Erica shows, and counting—with an appreciative and growing audience tuning in for more.
Like so many other families, once schools closed due to COVID-19, Erica was tasked with helping her own children continue their education through distance learning. The North Branford resident and her husband, Dan, who both grew up in Branford, have three young ones: Natalie, 7, Benson, 6, and Sadie, 3.
Erica has a bit of an advantage in helping their kids focus on their schooling: Her early career experience as an educator with Hamden Public Schools spanned teaching grades 2 to 6 in just seven years’ time.
“Basically, every year, I moved to a different grade level. It’s helped make me very flexible when it comes to teaching. I just roll with it,” says Erica.
Her idea for creating Miss Erica shows was inspired by what she’d created for her kids’ home schooling experience.
“Because I had my kids at home, and I was an elementary teacher in the past, it kind of fit the role to be homeschooling my kids,” says Erica, who set up a dedicated area in their home where the kids work and meet for school.
“Just on a whim one day, I decided to integrate some of the songs and music from our morning meetings that my kids were enjoying so much, and share it with everyone,” she says.
Erica propped up her cellphone, pointed it at the “classroom,” turned on the video camera, and a new YouTube channel was born. Videos to date have touched on storytelling, sing-alongs, art projects, science experiments, mindfulness, outdoor activities, Earth Day, and much more. To add to the experience, Erica’s kids help out by participating on-camera, from creating projects in real time to providing some comic relief.
“Really my kids make the show, it’s not me! It’s the commentary from them... My little one popped up in one [episode] and she’s wearing a wig,” says Erica, laughing.
As for her show’s technical production, “there’s nothing professional about it,” says Erica. “Most of the time it’s just me propping up my phone in an awkward location and filming. It’s normally one take, and I just upload it and say ‘Well, we’ll see if they enjoy it.’ But I know technical components can add to it. I would love to jazz up the videos and make them more professional looking.”
From the feedback received at her YouTube channel and via messages sent to the Community House, the dozens of viewers tuning in are enjoying Erica’s programs just as they are, says Parks & Rec Director Alex Palluzzi, Jr.
“All our toddler kids and families are watching them from home. We get a lot of letters and comments from parents saying she’s doing a great job,” says Palluzzi, adding, “it’s just amazing what she’s done with our program. It’s helping us to reach people at home and even farther than that.”
“It’s so nice to get feedback from the families,” says Erica. “They send pictures of their kids doing the exercises or dances or doing the projects. It’s always nice to see them enjoying the videos.”
Erica joined Parks & Rec as toddler instructor in September 2019, about two months before programs began operating out of the renovated/expanded Branford Community House.
“I started before the new building was up and running, so we did classes at Willoughby Wallace [Library] and then we transitioned to the new building, which is phenomenal,” she says.
Just as Erica and her toddlers were settling into a routine in the new space, COVID-19 closed the classroom. By reaching out to her charges on video, often mentioning their names as she asks questions or leads an activity, Erica hopes she’s providing some of the important connections kids need to stay grounded and feel secure during a period of disruption in their lives they don’t fully understand.
“I’m so glad I can do this for them, just to bring some normalcy and consistency and be like, ‘Hey, Miss Erica’s here, I’m thinking about you, I love you.’ That’s the important thing,” she says.
With no definite plans to return to the classroom soon, Erica says she’ll continue to come up with creative Miss Erica videos at her YouTube channel for the foreseeable future. She’ll also continue touching base and brainstorming with Parks & Rec Assistant Director Dale Izzo, who is also working on organizing several digital offerings for the community during COVID-19 (for the latest options, visit Branford Parks & Recreation’s Facebook page).
For example, a quick conversation between them regarding one of the shows, Miss Erica and the Chalk Maze, inspired some creative, next-level thinking. The video was shot outdoors, where Erica showed kids how to make their own chalk maze.
“I was speaking with Dale about it, and she said, ‘You know, some families don’t even have chalk to do this.’ So now we’re figuring out how to do this for them; maybe we’ll have a sign-up, and they can have me come out and draw a chalk maze for them, and get a chance to see me,” says Erica.
She’s also trying to find other ways to connect with toddlers and their families.
“I love connecting with lots of people in the community and little kids,” says Erica. “I would love to integrate some Zoom meetings with the kids, and also maybe some drive-by dance parties. I have lots of ideas.”
Izzo says Erica’s ideas are appreciated, now more than ever.
“She’s just been great,” says Izzo. “She’s reaching them on all levels. A neat thing she did, as well, was to work with our department and Branford Early Childhood Collaborative for [April’s] Week of the Young Child to praise our young children. She took a book, Too Many Carrots, and read that in a fun way and did an art project together with them. You really can’t say enough about Erica.”
Although this is Teacher Appreciation Week, Erica is thinking of another group she feels also deserves some appreciation, especially during this pandemic: mothers. This week, she’s planning to post a special video, just in time for Mothers’ Day.
“It’s going to be a message to all the moms, who are all doing a great job, even though sometimes we all feel it’s not enough or it’s not good enough,” says Erica. “So I will read a little story to the moms and send that message.”
Like all of her videos, Erica says she hopes it will bring some joy to those who are watching.
“My goal is just to bring a smile to their faces,” she says.
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