Ordinary magic: the power of parents in the pandemic

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

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With nurseries and early year settings now closed, parents are facing a new challenge: how to continue their children’s education at home.

Claire Greig, a mother from Leamington, says, “It’s a lot of pressure to balance keeping your child healthy and mentally happy, while still thinking about educating them and just being their mum. They are two different roles that usually don’t collide. With two kids, it’s even trickier." 

So what do the experts say? Do we need to give parents a crash course in education for their children to thrive?

“No,” says Rachel Carey, an occupational therapist and mother of two small boys in South Africa.

“Children learn most through play that is free, spontaneous and fun. Given a safe, clean, nurturing environment, they will drive their own development and learning.

This is particularly true for younger children. They are learning through experiential play and their sensory systems - touch, hearing, sight, and so on.”

Getting through the quarantine with small children

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For many parents, this week is the beginning of what feels like a never-ending childcare marathon.

Kirsten Davey from London started her first day of home schooling with an exercise class. Her two boys, both under 5, followed one of the many free workouts for kids online. She says, “It’s really difficult with the different concentration levels though - my oldest can concentrate for so much longer!”

Kirsten made use of one of the many free online classes parents are turning to. The Guardian has highlighted one of the most popular, online fitness guru Joe Wicks, whose YouTube workout has been livestreamed by more than a million people.

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Despite the inevitable challenges, ‘pandemic schooling’ at home doesn’t have to get complicated. 

There are 4 important things to remember:

  1. You were already your child’s biggest influencer before coronoravirus. With children spending up to 70% of their time amongst family and community, much of their learning is shaped by parents and carers - who don’t necessarily realise how influential they are.

  2. Parents don’t need expensive toys and structured activities – early years learning takes place in the most ordinary ways.

    Don’t pressure yourself to design a busy schedule or master activity plan every day. Simply allow your children to lead play and learning through their own curiosity.

    This might mean setting up dedicated areas with different, rotating toys. It can also be as easy as sitting near your children while they play, affirming what they do. Enjoyment needs to be a priority when learning.

  3. If you play, read and sing with your children, you are doing an excellent job.

    Although this sounds simple, and it is, it is also important not to feel guilty if you don’t feel like spending all your time helping your child to learn. Parents need breaks, too, and time for themselves, particularly during self-isolation. Self-compassion and connecting with other parents is enormously helpful.

  4. Children learn best by being involved in learning, actively engaging with their environment, and trying lots of different activities.

    They grow skills simply by talking with their parents, playing together and getting involved in what older people are doing (like cooking). Think about your daily life as the perfect school for your child.

3 brain-building activities:

1. Imaginary Safari

Learning goal: being imaginative

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How to play: 

  • Turn a room into an 'imaginary safari': you can create a fort or den out of chairs as your 'lookout'.

  • If your child doesn't understand the word 'safari' you can say: "we are looking out for animals".

  • Make pretend binoculars with your hands and scan the horizon; ask your child what they can see.

  • Encourage your child to describe the scene. Build on their ideas - for example, if they spot a giraffe, point out its long neck.

  • Keep looking out for lots of different animals and jungle activity.

  • Tip: Prepare for the game by looking through pictures of animals and naming them together. Or you can play with toy animals so your child feels inspired with some animal ideas.

2. Body tracing

Learning goal: Self-confidence and self-awareness

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  • Ask your child to lie down flat on a large piece of paper on the floor and put on some relaxing music.

  • Trace gently around the outline of your child's body with a pencil and comment on their body parts as you go. Show your child their outline and draw in their smaller body features as you describe them and name them together.

  • Tip: This is a great opportunity to introduce new words - e.g. 'the thigh is the top part of my leg' or 'the ankle is the boney bit which joins my leg to my foot'.

3. The Laundrette

Learning goal: shape, space and measures

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  • Put out some washing and ask your child to help you separate it into two piles: white clothes and coloured ones.

  • Explain that if white clothes go in with the coloured clothes; they change colour.

  • Praise your child when they sort things the right way. When your child is finished, ask them to put the white laundry into the washing machine.

It's OK to take a break

Putting your children in front of Frozen while you hide in your bedroom is also a perfectly natural response during the day! Just try to engage and be present with them where you have the capacity. You and your children don’t have to get everything right, all the time, day in and day out.

And on days when it feels like everything is failing, remember 4 golden words: this is not forever.

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For further support and reading, Julian Grenier from Sheringham Nursery has prepared a handy resource list for parents.

How to talk to your kids about coronavirus (article) https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-coronavirus

How you and your kids can de-stress during coronavirus (article) https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-you-and-your-kids-can-de-stress-during-coronavirus

https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/how-talk-your-child-about-coronavirus-covid-19

NSPCC support for parents with young children:

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/support-for-parents/cope-with-tantrums/

Babies and toddlers:

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/support-for-parents/baby-parenting/

Staying safe online:

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/parental-controls/

Children home alone:

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/in-the-home/home-alone/

Parenting if you have a mental health problem:

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/support-for-parents/mental-health-parenting/

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/parenting-with-a-mental-health-problem/parenting-and-mental-health/

If you have a disabled child:

https://contact.org.uk/advice-and-support/