U of G Community Finds Ways to Build Virtual Connections

Montage of photos from Child Care and Learning Centre

A cooking class is offered virtually at U of G’s Child Care and Learning Centre.

Lovers of the University of Guelph Arboretum can now take a virtual walk in the woods, as the University turns to web-based technology to help people stay engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fitness classes, singalong circles, virtual art gallery tours and children’s activities are among the many virtual initiatives that have developed quickly to provide a sense of connection and contribute to well-being.

With social-distancing measures in place — working from home, staying indoors, keeping a safe distance from others – many on campus are turning to web-based offerings as an alternative to face-to-face gatherings, classes and meetings.

Gryphons Fitness offers virtual fitness classes through Instagram Live to keep students and staff fit while at home. Each day, a new hour-long class is led by an NRG Fitness instructor on the social media platform, including sessions in yoga, kickboxing and body weight exercises.

A yoga pose from above

Virtual yoga is among the offerings

Fitness lovers can take part live at @Gryphons_Fitness or log on later, as the workouts remain available for 24 hours. Over a three-day period, more than 3,000 have logged in.

“We’ve been very pleased with the engagement and comments,” said Jennifer O’Neill, manager of recreation, fitness and client services at U of G. “For now, we’re going to stick to the schedule for six days a week, one class a day. Saturday will be a rest day.”

Initially hesitant about the virtual format, O’Neill said the sessions give participants what they need, including variety in their day, a good workout and fun.

“It’s a great way to be connected to a community.”

The Arboretum is now offering virtual interpretive walks through the wood on Facebook and YouTube, with naturalist interns taking viewers in search of animal tracks and other signs of wildlife.

In-person programming has been cancelled, said Arboretum director Justine Richardson, including the Wednesday at Noon walks normally led by Kitty and Jenny Lin, the Arboretum’s naturalist interns. Both U of G grads and identical twin sisters, they are now offering activities online.

“This week they started experimenting with taking their usual weekly tours online for anyone who can’t get outside,” said Richardson. “Viewers will see different areas of the Arboretum and learn about the tree collections, unique plants and animal behaviours found there, as well as other places outdoors.”

A hiker in the woods

A hiker on a U of G Arboretum trail.

The walks will change each week through spring, Richardson added.

The Arboretum’s interpretive biologist and education coordinator, Chris Earley, challenges Facebook followers to backyard scavenger hunts and trivia contests. Online walks are being planned for those who must stay indoors.

Teachers in U of G’s Child Care and Learning Centre are using Zoom to engage children in their classes. Virtual meetings offer the opportunity for educators to connect with children and families to foster a continued sense of belonging, said director Valerie Trew.

“Our morning meetings are always an important ritual in the children’s day,” she said. “It’s a time when every child gets to experience being an active, participating member of their community.”

Trew said it is very moving to see families and educators come together to provide children with some consistency and predictability during an otherwise uncertain time.

“To see educators bundled up reading stories from outside, baking in their kitchens, singing songs, introducing pets, and taking time to connect with each and every child: it fills my heart.”

The virtual meetings often begin with a welcome song to establish a sense of routine. Children are encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings. Teachers read favourite storybooks and sing songs.

Suggestions for family activities are also offered, whether it’s to spend time outdoors, share a favourite memory or cook together. Some educators are connecting with families through virtual one-on-one meetings to share advice and support or just read a story.

“Most importantly, the morning meetings are a time to check in with each child and educator, see how they’re doing, find out what they enjoyed or what they are looking forward to, and sometimes to share what they’re proud of,” said Trew.

“Continuing morning meetings virtually using Zoom meetings has allowed for us to not only maintain but to deepen those community connections, as we now have parents, siblings, grandparents and pets joining in – not to mention the families of our educators.”

The Art Gallery of Guelph on the U of G campus is closed, but its artworks are still available online. View the public gallery’s exhibitions and art from its collection on Instagram and on Facebook.