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Relationships and Interactions


Monday 09 November 2020


Relationships are at the very heart of early learning and development” – this has always been my favourite quote from Aistear, (Learning and developing through interactions, Aistear, Guidelines for good practice [NCCA, 2009, p.27]). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how much relationships between children and their families, and the early years educators, matter. For the first three months, when Early Learning and Care centres had no choice but to close, wonderful stories were being told about the extraordinary lengths you, the educators, were going to, to preserve and nurture those strong relationships with children. From storytime and singing together on Zoom to suggesting activities on WhatsApp to parents, many of whom were attempting to work from home while caring for their children at the same time. Your dedication and enthusiasm were amazing, with many of you creating new ways to celebrate leaving pre-school and support transitions to primary school and welcoming new children.

When the restrictions eased in June, again you rose to the challenge of reopening.  Lots of changes had to happen to ensure the children’s safety: being mindful of friends, siblings and cousins when creating pods as well as the physical resources to do so; extending time and opportunities for outdoor play; providing extra resources and procedures for hygiene stations and reviewing and amending policies. Many of you reported that while things were different and perhaps not quite as you would like, seeing the pleasure, joy and excitement of the children as they returned, made all the extra work worthwhile, easing many of your own and parents anxieties.

In the weeks following their return, you have no doubt seen the children’s capability to adapt to the “new normal”: to different ways of doing things and to some different rules. This perhaps was harder for some than for others.  You knew which of the returning children would manage and those who might need some extra support.

You may have noticed how your close, warm relationships with the children give them a sense of trust, enabling them to share their knowledge, feelings and concerns about this pandemic, both with you and with their peers.  

This does not happen automatically. You have been attentively watching their play. As children’s play is based on their experiences, it stands to reason that some of this play centres on aspects of the pandemic. During the recent European Early Childhood Education Research Association’s  (EECERA) online Convocation “International Narratives about COVID-19 and Early Childhood”,  one webinar entitled “What have children got to say: Children’s narratives of the Pandemic from 3 countries”, researchers and educators from around the world shared stories about children’s current play. One such story was about how the children brought the pandemic into their play – a child would cough and fall-down, two “doctors” would attend the patient and diagnose COVID-19. When the adult attempted to join in the game to explore and support their thinking, the children ended the game and moved to other activities. This sent a clear message that they did not want to share this with the adult, at least for now. As early years educators, knowing when to step back and when to step in is an important skill in supporting interactions.

Many times during the day, you come across possible opportunities or teachable moments when you use your professional judgement to know when to be an observer, when to respond to an invitation to join the play or when to make a suggestion to support the play.  Because you are tuned in to individual children and you really know them, more often than not, you make the right decision.

When you listen closely to children’s questions (and equally important to their silences and non-verbal cues) and respond appropriately, at the right time and pace, you are helping them to make sense of their world. You are giving children a voice, a sense of being heard and by confirming their thoughts and feelings you give them the message that you value their experiences.   

These are strategies identified in the Marte Meo approach as interactions that support children’s emotional and social development. Maria Aarts, the founder of the approach, encourages early years educators to acknowledge the important, supportive work they do – to ”Hup Hup” as she calls it. You can listen to Maria explain this in the introduction to the short online programme ‘Inspiring Interactions with children under 2’, (developed by the Research and Professional Learning team in Early Childhood Ireland as part of the First5 CPD resources) by following this link.


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