Big Tents Create Outdoor Options for In-Person Classes

As thankful as families were for the chance to keep their babies and preschoolers in virtual music and movement classes when the COVID-19 pandemic began is as eager as they were to leave the house when the weather warmed up. 

Families started asking Bubbles Academy when they could use the playground, and by then the staff was already looking into the best ways to let kids play. 

“We had done the research on how to open safely,” says Natalie Monterastelli, the co-owner and director at Bubbles Academy. “All the recommendations were for stable groups, but for things like drop-ins we were a little lost on how to bring that back.

“We have inside classrooms, how does that look trying to keep toddlers socially distant? We looked at creating spaces, what we had available and what could work time wise. Then we learned that everything shifted outside in previous pandemics. We said: ‘we can do that!’” 

So Bubbles Under the Bigtop was born, an outdoor space that utilizes two tents that span the Bubbles’ parking lot and allow classes to be held with room to maintain social distancing. 

“Families were really asking for more morning classes,” Monterastelli says. “What do I do with my toddler at 10 a.m.?” 

Filling a void left as COVID-19 concerns canceled most summer experiences or pushed them online, small, outdoor-centric classes have given families an outlet across the city.

When Old Town School of Folk Music erected its tent, it did so quietly. Not knowing what the reaction would be to Wiggleworms classes being held outside, the tent went up and registration began. 

“We whispered it out into the world,” says Cat Tager, Old Town School’s associate director of education. “Early, I really wanted to limit class size. We’re pretty intentional in how to position class so it’s safe.” 

Classes at Bubbles and the Wiggleworms experiences have defined baby and toddler education for many Chicagoans. Wiggleworms classes continue on Fridays at Navy Pier, with the same social distancing guidelines. 

But downtown, how do you keep babies and toddlers from playing together? 

“Each teacher has their own way of expressing what the space is,” says Tager, whose six-foot spaces are delineated with three-foot foam pads. “We gave each team of grown-up and kid a shaker and a scarf to keep with them. They’re in charge of keeping that clean and bringing it to class. Then the teachers have all tried something different to help kids stay on the mats. One teacher said, ‘these are your lily pads and be a frog or a flower on your lily pad.’ Another teacher said, ‘this is your castle, defend your castle!’ It’s brilliant to see.”

Monterastelli says that Bubbles is committing to the format into October, hoping that warm weather pervades and allows outdoor classes to continue. Outdoor classes have included Ballet, Family Music & Movement, Preschool Prep and Music Walkers, and the school has utilized its playground for art and music, story time class and a nature art class.

The catch with outdoor classes is that drop-ins aren’t as welcome, so preregistration is a must. And once a grown-up/child pair has committed to a class, makeup classes aren’t allowed to keep the same attendees in each class. 

Tager says that the reminders of why these classes have been such a success continue. 

With bubble blowing ending each Wiggleworms class, a young child recently stood up in the tent for his first steps to pop a bubble. 

“And you melt, because life keeps going,” Tager says.

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