These are uncertain times and, just as we are, young children are struggling to make sense of it all. In this pandemic it is difficult for them to understand what it is that is creating anxiety and fear among their parents and other adults. Some children will seem unaffected, some scared, others frightened, curious or sad. Those living in stable and secure homes may be less affected than those children living in more precarious circumstances where the anxieties at home may contribute directly to their own stresses and anxiety. An important minority live in homes where tensions will have tipped into aggression, which will further heighten their own fears and distress.
These are the various experiences that children will bring with them as they arrive back into early childhood services. And we have an important role to play in allaying fears and providing familiar, calm, playful and welcoming spaces. Children will need to take things at their own pace through their play and we should not rush them through this important period of adjustment. What we need to do, what we are trained to do, is give them the time, materials and encouragement for playful interactions with their friends in early learning environments that have been carefully prepared to allow them explore their own worlds, inner and outer.
Research suggests that relationships and the quality of these relationships may be more important for children’s positive development than the contexts within which they are living or the environment in which they are growing up. The developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner has highlighted the importance of relationships and day-to-day interactions – what he called proximal processes – as the engines driving development. The power of these quality interactions, which are responsive to children’s behaviour, sensitive to the characteristics of individual children and have the most fundamental impact on early learning and development, is a key feature of the unique nature of early childhood education. Quality early educational practice exemplifies a strengths-based view of children reflecting a view of them as competent, strong and active participants in their own learning and development. Even the very youngest child engages in meaningful communication through their movements, their vocalisations and their overall behaviour – our skill is in ‘reading them’ and responding in an attuned and supportive manner. Knowing your children well, knowing their interests, their friendships, their fears and their strengths can inform the way in which you relate to them and can guide you in how to create relational environments that facilitate, encourage and give time for relationships with children, between children and with elements of the learning environment. Over the coming months children will need time to allow them play alone and in small groups in calm environments where they can have some control. With the likely restrictions on space the outdoors becomes a powerful ally and a space where children can have opportunities for movement, creative exploration and spontaneous play.
Strong, positive and warm relationships can help overcome the challenges some children face and help children whose security has been disrupted as a consequence of this invisible virus. Clear feedback is an essential source of personal affirmation, particularly important for young children as they seek to understand their position in the world. The key elements contributing to feedback are the cues we give to children; the voice that can praise and encourage, admonish and comfort; touch where a hug can confirm that everything is okay, the pat on the head to reassure and the facial expressions that send such crucial messages of belonging, care, caution or protection through eye contact and the slightest hint of a smile.
Recognising the healing and developmental power of relationships, we face the challenge, as early childhood educators of how to be responsive to children while meeting the extensive demands being made on us. While certain restrictions will continue to be necessary, we must be clear that our collective responsibility is to the development and wellbeing of those children attending our settings. We cannot do this alone. The current crisis presents us with an unprecedented opportunity; transformative leadership now could radically reform the childcare system nationally. An immediate, collaborative and practical response, involving all stakeholders could work towards resolving existing systemic problems and build a cohesive and sustainable quality early childhood education and care system to benefit children, parents, educators and society as a whole. We cannot afford to waste this opportunity.