by Evi Marami
On 23rd of March, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announces the UK lockdown.
Schools and nurseries close and relieved teachers go home with some of them returning a bit too early to look after the children of key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. On 1st of June the Department of Education, after lengthy debates with educators, school head teachers and unions, gives the green light for the early years children to return to nurseries, publishing guidelines with safety measures that the settings need to follow to keep everyone safe.
Teachers feel unsatisfied with the proposed measures, accusing the DfE of rushing them into returning to a new reality without a safety net. More and more voices of concern are raised as many experts from the Education sector find the guidelines ‘unrealistic’ and ‘vague’.
For the early years settings, it is proposed, amongst others, social distancing in the rooms, removal of cushions, soft toys, rugs, sand and water resources, formation of bubbles where children wouldn’t interact or mix up with each other. Children should avoid sharing toys and resources, they should wash their hands regularly and avoid physical contact when possible.
Sharing , teamwork, creating bonds and friendships, inviting others to play, is in the heart of the early years curriculum and it felt that the recommended measures were trying to strip away what essentially is the very essence of our practise. It was almost unimaginable to create a ‘safe’ environment where 2 and 3-year olds wouldn’t cuddle their friends, share or touch the same toys and understand social distancing.
Whoever has worked or has any experience from a nursery setting will understand how valuable tools the sand and water are or the importance of using cushions, rugs, puppets in creating a cosy book corner that is inviting for the children to relax and explore books.
How challenging would it be to create a rich, stimulating and above all safe environment for the staff and the children? Officially (written emails) or unofficially, in small groups, one could often hear words such as ‘wellbeing’’ and ‘’anxiety’’. Was that the time to put everyone’s limits to the test? How could educators still deliver an amazing curriculum without compromising on safety with all these limitations?
I was very concerned about me returning to work. I didn’t want my children to miss on anything and I certainly didn’t want my staff to feel anxious or frustrated all day long. The reality, as in most cases in life, was neither black nor white; it was a beautiful grey thanks to our children.
Of course children wouldn’t keep any type of distancing and they would still share their blocks and dinosaurs with their friends but their resilience, flexibility, warmth, imagination and genuine need of exploration gave me the answer that I couldn't see before. Children don’t follow norms, they improvise, they find their own ways of doing things. A paper plate can be a wheel, a fun, the sun, the sea, there is no limitation in how one can use and interpret it.
That was the lead I needed to follow and the inspiration I was looking for. Yes sand is a valuable tool (sensory play, exploration, mark making, filling and emptying, imaginative play etc) and I didn’t have that option anymore or at least, I didn’t have it in the previous and well-known format . The realisation came quite quickly, and it was us educators who had to reset our mindsets and come up with new ways of teaching. Children are more adaptive than adults and they can find joy and opportunities for learning even in the smallest things; children didn’t really miss the sand tray, my teachers did. Children could practise their fine motor skills and enjoy mark-making without the sand. Children were happy to be with their friends, share their experiences, talk about their ideas, invite their friends to join in, create imaginary words where they could put their ideas to the test, fail, problem solve, achieve.
And that is the core of the early years curriculum, teaching children lifelong learning skills: Teaching them empathy skills, giving them the tools and opportunity to confidently express their thoughts, ideas and feelings, to create bonds, to learn how to work within a team and how to discover their strengths. Yes we do need to teach them numbers and letters and prepare them for school but if educators only put emphasis on that then we all need to reflect on our practise and review the educational system.
The revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) although it seems to be taking small, hesitant steps into the right direction still needs a more inspirational approach to children, play and learning. With or without a mask, with or without sand, the new challenging reality requires flexibility, innovation, resilience and provides an excellent opportunity for parents, educators, policy makers to self-reflect and actually think of what really matters when it comes to children and their education. And if I am allowed to make a suggestion, it is now the time more than ever, for the emphasis to be put on children and their needs and wants, giving them voice and learning from them, giving them credits and getting inspired from their approach to challenges.
If in 2020 we still have and need movements to declare what should be the obvious, that black lives matter and that women have equal rights and need equal opportunities to men just to name two examples, then we still fail our children in more than one way.
Let’s learn from them for a change.