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Coronavirus: What does back to nursery and pre-school mean for you?

Sian Lewis

Written by Sian Lewis

6 min read

Don’t you just love it when parenting anxiety comes with extra layers of…well, parenting anxiety?

Many parents facing a September return to, or the precious first days at, nursery and pre-school have been hit with double (treble?) whammy worry.

Back To School Worries

Toddlers back at their nursery playing with their friends and teacher

Are you feeling mixed emotions, with a side dish of guilt, about your children going back? Have social media comments, for which read ‘judgements’, made you question your choices? Added to these concerns, some parents are feeling added stress… “What if my worry is contagious - and I pass it to my child?”

“I consider myself a rational, calm parent – most of the time,” says Lucy, a mother of two from the North West. “Yet, since lockdown, my anxiety has often spiralled out of control. My youngest daughter is due to go back to pre-school. I want to protect her from worry and comfort her when she’s confused. When she asks if she can still hug Granddad after nursery, I can tell my woolly answers don't help, but I just don't know what to say."

“Parents have to filter the outside world in an age-appropriate way, which can be really hard,” explains Jo Ratcliffe, a former LEGO educational advisor who now works as an educator and counsellor. “Start with making sure young children don’t see or hear too much.”

But, this doesn’t mean entirely shutting yourself off from coronavirus news. Knowledge is power when it comes to making sense of this strange new world for your children.

COVID-19 In ChildrenBlonde child playing behind a grey curtain preparing to return to his nursery during the COVID-19 pandemic

The latest World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows that even up to 18 years old, children represent just 1-3% of reported cases across the world, even though that age group counts for 29% of the global population.

And, Great Ormond Street Hospital reports that, according to evidence in late July, “even when children do develop Covid-19, very few develop severe symptoms even if they have an underlying health condition.”

Less is known about children and community transmission. The WHO is leading a global study into how children might pass on the virus, sometimes without showing symptoms. Until the results are known, parents need to manage their own risks and rely on safety procedures in their children’s early years settings.

But wait, does this mean there is an expectation for toddlers and pre-schoolers to keep one metre and more from their friends and educators when there is sticky play to enjoy and a cuddle needed when knees are grazed?

Can Small People Socially Distance?

Children at their pre-school nursery sitting down to play with a colourful foam jigsaw puzzle

I think we can all agree that’s a clear cut ‘No’, with a capital ‘N’!

“When have pre-schoolers ever socially distanced?” asks Kelly, a nurse and mother of two from West Sussex. “My three-year-old daughter came back from her nursery taster day with nits. She didn’t get those by keeping away from other kids!”

Kelly still plans to send her daughter into pre-school come September. “My hospital is really busy, I want to do more shifts," she explains. "But what happens when the normal autumn coughs and colds start? Will everything shut down? If it is stop, start, stop, start - with no routine - that will be unsettling for the children. How do we explain that to them?”

How To Talk To Your Children

“Give children, however young, time to talk,” says Ratcliffe. “If words don’t work, draw pictures with them, get them to show you through pictures how they feel or what they think. The most important thing is to answer their questions, but try not to offer up too much information, which might prompt more uncertainty.”

If you need inspiration, UNICEF has created a guide with tips on talking to your children about Covid-19.

Father taking the time to talk to his children about how they feel

Parents Also Need To Share 

While shielding little loved ones from the worst worries of the past few months, parents have shouldered daily micro-stresses, which can add up to a crushing sense of anxiety. With new concerns about a return to ‘normal’, as children go back into a learning setting, parents who feel overwhelmed need to share their feelings.

Orlanda, a GP and mother of four from West Sussex, says, “People’s mental health and well-being have been seriously affected over the past few months. And, sadly with social media, everyone seems to have an opinion, even if it harms others. Lots of parents feel guilty about their decision to send children to nurseries and pre-schools, even if they have struggled during lockdown. But it is a personal choice. A happy parent is a happier child. You have to put your family – and your mental health – first.”

You can find practical ways for parents to stay positive and manage stress during the pandemic on the WHO website.

Children's Ability To Adapt

Are you worried that a potentially topsy-turvy routine might stress or upset your child? Well, it turns out that we adults often take longer to get used to change – children are way ahead of us on this one.

“Young children are incredibly adaptable and will adjust to a new normal in a matter of days,” explains Ratcliffe. "You will see them settle quickly, especially if they're kept busy. When their minds are occupied, they quickly forget worries.”

Young children playing outdoor adjusting to the new normal during lockdown

Orlanda agrees. “My youngest went into pre-school during lockdown when I needed to work, and she adapted to every change. I was amazed by her resilience.”

The Benefits Of Going Back To School

The WHO is clear about the substantial social and psychological wellbeing benefits for children learning in a group setting. However fabulous your home-learning wall charts, guided play and colouring skills may be – children thrive when they are with their pals.

“Innate learning is vital for early years child development,” says Ratcliffe. “That’s everything the children learn from playing with friends, from watching other children, from talking to others on their level.”

“I can see that playing at nursery helps my youngest feel everything’s normal,” says Orlanda. “She loves the change of scenery and gets to spend the day with adults who aren’t her grumpy parents.”

Speaking of parents, however, precious family lockdown time has been, many are feeling frazzled around the edges.

Give Yourself A Giant Pat On The Back

Father in a yellow top holding a crying baby while feeling overwhelmed

Juggling work with the need to provide hourly (half-hourly?) snacks is testing for even the most patient soul. Finding enough oomph at the end of your shift to actively play with your pre-schooler is hard. Looking after your family as a tag team with your partner, with both of you working different ‘shifts’ to fit everything in, is challenging - even for the strongest relationships.

Although the September return to early years settings may feel far removed from a return to ‘normal’, it could be a chance for parents to breathe again.

“Also, Covid has changed our lives, and we will need to live with it for a long time,” says Orlanda. "This is an opportunity to show children that life can move forward, and that’s a really positive thing."