On the eve of reopening our service, there is a sense of relief of a return to normality, and a definite sense of pride in being part of the staff team here. Since that first week when our lives were thrown into disarray, and the outside world seemed so frightening and overwhelming, we cleared a space for our little ones. Our Whatsapp groups for the parents and for the staff team, were buzzing with weekly activities, resources and supports, story-time recordings and photos of activities. Once restrictions permitted, we gathered back on site in our gardens, where news was shared and plans were made. We are fortunate in having established our outdoor ethos over the past number of years and have already put a lot of work, and government funding, into our outdoor environments.
We have added a ‘Barn’, named after the Norwegian term ‘barnehage’ for kindergarten, complete with a stove for the chilly mornings; built mud kitchens, bug hotels and water walls, and created all these provocations for play to make the transition back into the setting easier for children and parents. We have created pods and re-scheduled rosters and annual leave, adapting routines and risk assessments. However, although these tasks are so important to ensure we are adhering to guidance and regulations in creating a safe physical space, the emphasis here is also on the interactional elements of the environment. The conversations had around our story circle during team meetings and coffee in the yard all focused on the children. People often misunderstand the concept of ‘care’ in ECCE, considering it the lesser half of the ‘education’ aspect, but this is relational pedagogy in practice. I sat and listened while some wondered if certain families might have had difficulties during Covid-19; empathising with the working parent who must be finding it hard to juggle online with a small child; and thinking about different children and their reactions to the lock-down.
We hosted individual visits with every family so the children could meet us again and see their key worker. Every time we had a meeting and a conversation with a parent, a staff debate ensued about what needed to be done to make sure the child settled back in. Noddings (2012) talks about the Care theory in education, and when I look at my colleagues here, I can see that this caring element is part of the culture here. It has become embedded in our practice, so it is absorbed by our newer members of staff as the way things are. The children are at the centre of everything we do. Am I nervous about re-opening? I don’t think I am. I know that we have done everything we can to minimise risk to children, their families and the staff. I also know that those children coming back to us this week will be greeted with joyful faces and huge hearts. We will be grand.
Sharon Skehill has worked in the early years’ sector as Manager and Room Leader of her full day care facility in Abbeyknockmoy, Tuam, Co. Galway, for over ten years, along with her team of 13 staff. She is currently studying for her PhD in Early Years’ Education with Mary Immaculate College.