The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. As adults, we experienced fundamental shifts in every part of our lives. But how did the pandemic impact young children? The Froebel Trust has published a detailed report on children’s experiences of the pandemic. The UK-based organisation’s research focused on children aged 2-4 years living in England, Scotland and New Zealand. It used a Froebelian approach to storytelling encouraging young children to explore their experiences of the pandemic through play. It uncovered important lessons about children’s resilience, creativity, and wisdom. While acknowledging the importance of the public health measures undertaken during the pandemic, this research seeks to understand how these restrictions impacted the current and future mental health and wellbeing of a generation of young children. The effect of COVID-19 restrictions on children’s lives obviously depends on their family’s circumstances. Unsurprisingly, it is the most disadvantaged children who are likely to have experienced the most severe impacts.
The project was led by the Centre for Research in Early Childhood in Birmingham working with a team of practitioner-researchers and four early years settings in England, Scotland, and New Zealand. 36 children aged 2-4 years with a mix of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and COVID experiences were selected as case studies. Their COVID narratives were carefully documented from September-December 2020 as they returned to their settings, creating an evidence bank of narrative sequences. These narratives took the form of oral narratives, drawings, play narratives, photographic storyboards and digital documentation. Alongside the play narratives, a series of parent and practitioner reflective dialogues were conducted in which the adults close to the children were encouraged to think about the children’s play. These adult dialogues explored how the play reflected the daily experiences at home and what they might do to better support children’s social and emotional wellbeing. Many sectors of society have had an opportunity to voice their experiences of the pandemic. The report argues that young children, who are at a formative stage in their lives, have equally valid views and feelings about the pandemic which they can express if given the opportunity. This project aimed to support children to share their stories of the pandemic and to promote children’s ability to reflect on their experiences. It also sought to explore the role of storytelling in promoting children’s social and emotional health and managing their fears and anxieties about the pandemic.
The research found that young children are very capable of reflecting deeply on their experiences. Six dominant narrative themes emerged from their reflections: transitions and settling; children’s friendships; children’s silences and expressions of resilience; the need to play; the importance of outdoors; and children’s COVID wisdom. Children in all three countries were eager to regain their daily life and routine, to be with their friends, to have extended time to play, to be outdoors and to have truthful information about what was happening. Individual children’s responses were clearly influenced by each country’s response to the pandemic and their individual family circumstances. However, unsurprisingly, the research found that most families faced significant challenges during the pandemic. These challenges included worries about infection and vaccines; lack of extended family contact, especially with grandparents; social isolation; parents worrying about the impact of the pandemic on children’s progress, the pressures of homeschooling and worries about jobs, finances and housing.
Interestingly, the research findings highlighted several positive impacts of the pandemic, including more time together as a family, a slower pace of life and a renewed appreciation of nature and seasons. The research highlighted several practices which participants hope will continue after the pandemic including,
- They need to slow down and listen to each other more
- The benefits of action research for the triad of a parent, child, and practitioner learning together with no preconceived agenda.
- The shift to more email and phone contact with parents has strengthened relationships
- The slower pace of life and re-prioritising of what is important has benefited many
The report concludes with an ardent call for policymakers to consider children’s voices and experiences in their work. According to the report, “children have powerful narratives about how they have been affected by lockdowns and the subsequent opening up of public spaces and places, and we believe that this deserves serious consideration by practitioners and policymakers”. Collectively, we must endeavour to value, listen to, and nurture these young children and their experiences of the pandemic. In many ways, the children themselves have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.
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