Heather Prime & Magdalena Wojtowicz
BY MENTORING CHILDREN in the community, students of psychology assistant professors Heather Prime and Magdalena Wojtowicz in Atypical Development (PSYCH 4460), can observe first-hand how children learn and grow in their school environment.
In pre-pandemic times, the students were placed in partner elementary schools close to York, where they worked with a range of children as educational mentors, supporting them with homework, project development, and participation in social activities.
During the pandemic, however, continuing the program’s hands-on component was a challenge as schools were locked down, and online mentorship was logistically and ethically impossible. So Prime and Wojtowicz took a bold step by giving students the opportunity to mentor virtual children.
My Virtual Child is an interactive, web-based simulation that allows students to “raise” a child in avatar form from birth to the age of 18. Each avatar comes equipped with its own host of characteristics, including genetic predispositions, temperaments, and physical, mental and social development.
These background characteristics are responsive to the input that students give so that students have some control over the journey their child takes. There are also random events, as in real life, that students have no control over.
“They’re making real decisions that affect the development of the child,” says Prime, a practicing clinical psychologist. “Online, we had weekly discussion posts where students would reflect on what the choices they made would look like in reality.”
Working with virtual children had obvious drawbacks such as the lost opportunity to mentor children in their natural environments. But Prime says there were advantages too: “In a regular classroom, students don’t necessarily see mental health challenges at the forefront.”
Fortunately, Prime and Wojtowicz’s connections with community schools have been well-maintained for future iterations of PSYCH 4460. In the meantime, their students have been able to gain valuable experience through technology -- watching in real time how mentorship can affect the growth and development of a child, especially those with extra challenges.