My youngest granddaughter turned 4 this week. She’s in her sponge years, soaking up new experiences and knowledge so fast she’s ready to burst.

This fall brought preschool, dance class and soccer. ABCs, counting-to-20 and days with schedules and structure. And friends. The first day of school she took the hand of a frightened little girl, said, “Come with me,” and they skipped through the classroom door together.

These opening steps toward independence are perhaps the most vital she’ll take in her life. This is when she’ll learn emotional and intellectual skills that will form the foundation for all future learning.

The first awkward interactions with teachers and other kids her age will help shape her relationships forever.

The early triumphs will give her a sense of self, a confidence to try bigger and better things, the courage to shrug off failures.

Kamryn and her classmates were well on their way, learning to sit still and listen, to move to music, to kick a ball, to whisper and giggle as they tied their first bonds of friendship.

Of course, they did it all wearing masks, as teachers and coaches tried vigilantly to keep impulsive balls of energy and excitement six feet apart.

This week it came to a sudden halt. School, dance, soccer all canceled indefinitely in the name of COVID-19.

She’s heartbroken. No words can make her understand why all these wonderful new things she’d just discovered have been yanked away.

Perhaps older children can return to virtual learning for a few more months with little long-term consequences, although I also fret for Kamryn’s oldest cousin, a high school junior who’s cheated of equally formative transition experiences.

Sitting a 4-year-old in front of a computer to learn the things better learned by sitting together in circles on the floor is a futile enterprise. Hard enough to keep their attention face-to-face.

Early childhood education experts stress the importance of teachers building deep relationships with their young pupils, getting to know them and their interests. Can they do that over an internet connection?

Simple hands-on art projects and experiential learning, touching, smelling, tasting, are the building blocks of a solid STEM education.

Keeping kids safe is everyone’s priority.

But I worry we are doing long-term damage in so obsessively shielding this least likely group to suffer from the virus.

The greater and longer-lasting harm may be in stunting their emotional and intellectual development.

Cultivating their natural curiosity, getting them comfortable working with others, nurturing the basic skills of learning all happen best at this age. If they miss out, many may never catch up.

Already in Michigan, half of 3- and 4-year-olds don’t attend preschool. That’s well below the average for top performing education states, and may explain why Michigan’s overall performance remains stubbornly in the bottom tier.

Closing preschools should be a very last resort. These years are too important to forfeit.

Kamryn is home today when she should be in class, singing, dancing and learning with other children her age.

Those are experiences that can’t be well replicated remotely, nor can the emotional growth that comes through unstifled social collisions.

Distance learning, I fear, will produce distant kids.

The Managing Editor for the Ludington Daily News since June 2018 and on the staff since Oct. 2011, taking over for legendary Lloyd Wallace. Previously with The Chippewa Herald in Chippewa Falls, Wis., and the Tuscola County Advertiser in Caro.

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