The nursery I’ve managed for the last seven years, Angel Pre-School in south Westminster, London, is a unique place. We’re part of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), where, unlike private nurseries, it’s part of our mission to give back to our often very marginalised communities.
At Angel itself, we have government-funded places subsidised by LEYF that allow us to focus on the most vulnerable children. Many come from homes where there may be mental health issues, deprivation or poverty, families we consider it our duty to support.
Before Covid, our children would normally spend a lot of time playing in free flow, with periods of outdoor play and time spent in open plan areas that enables them to learn and explore their interests. They could also use our sensory room and our language sessions as many of them either speak English as an additional language or might be experiencing speech delay.
At Angel we have a massive garden, and so we try to take a lot of our learning outside. Many of our children come from high rise flats or homes without access to gardens, so in the three hours a day they’re here, we make sure they get over an hour dedicated to the outdoors.
Even pre-Covid, that was vital. But even more so now.
The level of anxiety when they returned after lockdown was a huge surprise. And it wasn’t just the children...
When we re-opened in June after the first lockdown, everything changed. We operated two ‘bubbles’ a day and the children went from having free run of the nursery inside and outside to putting in place dedicated Covid regulations. We doubled up our cleaning (even sanitising the bottom of children’s shoes when they entered the building), made sure they all washed their hands regularly and, after each morning session, we would close for an hour of cleaning ahead of the afternoon bubble.
We had to pull back a lot of our resources due to Government guidelines, but fortunately our garden allowed us to play and learn safely outside. For example, our register was taken outside, snack time became picnic time, and a lot of teaching sessions were held outside too. Let’s just say it was a good thing summer lasted as long as it did. We even hosted a free summer school to help young children most in need who risked falling behind with their learning, made possible by the Barclays UK 100 x 100 Community Relief Programme.
The biggest change we noticed, however, was the children’s mental health. The level of anxiety when they returned after lockdown was a huge surprise. And it wasn’t just the children – we needed to do a lot of work reassuring parents too about the safety procedures we’d put in place.
We found we had to focus parents on what’s actually factual and what’s not there were so many WhatsApp messages coming through to them sharing incorrect or misleading information. So, we listened to every parent and took their concerns on board, and simply reassured them that we follow all the right procedures.
Slowly, more children were coming in day after day. But we also began to notice that some children didn’t want to separate from their parents. These were the same children who were perfectly fine just a couple of months before. We had children who were the life of the party before lockdown but came back withdrawn, not communicating or making contact with staff. We even had a higher number of children return to pre-school wearing nappies.
It’s important to say this isn’t because of ‘bad parenting’. For some, it’s a lack of knowledge or a lack of support around them, and for others I truly believe they were so caught up in what was happening in the wider world that these things were simply overlooked.
We have decided to focus solely on our children’s personal, social and emotional development. This year we’re not worried about learning numbers or shapes. All that will follow in good time.
In September 2021, I believe schools are going to be in for a massive shock. We are working so hard with our parents to give them as much support as possible, but it’s been really shocking to see the negative impact of being away from Pre-School for just four months. The delay in some of the children’s development has been quite surprising, and I think we’re going to see the impact of this delay not just in the coming years but for the foreseeable future.
As a result, we have decided to focus solely on our children’s personal, social and emotional development. This year we’re not worried about learning numbers or shapes. All that will follow in good time. On the nursery floor, that means a lot of story time, a lot of time talking about feelings and emotions, a lot of Makaton to enable people to communicate, especially our non-verbal communicators.
If you walked into Angel you wouldn’t see tables of children with shapes and numbers in front of them – you’ll find malleable, textured objects and things that allow the children to express their feelings. That’s because if children are not secure in their personal social and emotional development, no matter what, they’re not going to learn anything. They have to be secure, they have to be comfortable, or no learning can take place.
I think the Government needs to get behind nurseries and Pre-Schools like ours and the Early Years sector and finally acknowledge that children under five years really do matter. We need to be at the forefront of people’s minds, because we look after the next generation – who will in turn look after us.
As told to Charlie Lindlar
Christel Brown is nursery manager at Angel Pre-School, London
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