I have a very wiggly problem underneath my desk. My wiggly problem is 2, constantly eats snacks, and pulls on my legs during conference calls.
For the past two weeks, my 2-year-old has been at home, because her nursery is shut due to COVID-19. Our 4-year-old is also at home, doing remote learning. I will tell you – joining virtual classrooms using Microsoft Teams is a big ask for someone who can’t even tie her shoes yet.
This represents the new normal for many parents and young children. Life for countless parents with kids under 5 looks completely different to just 12 months ago. Thanks to the internet’s penchant for joking about it, there is much room for laughter. But the serious side of this is that many parents with younger children are struggling to work, and many kids are struggling to learn.
Normal educational experiences for our youngest children here in the UK have been interrupted aggressively. Nurseries and preschools were shut and then reopened, but with the constant caveat of sudden closure if a COVID case arises. Pre-pandemic numbers showed that 96-99% of children in the UK attended some form of nursery before entering Reception – now, this number has fallen drastically in ways that are almost impossible to quantify. This means many young children have suddenly lost in-person access to friends and playmates, and to those skilled teachers and staff who are equipped to teach the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum.
Compromised and irregular access to nursery isn’t the only feature of this Early Learning Crisis. Early learning doesn’t just happen at nursery – it happens all the time, in children’s everyday environments. But many everyday environments have now changed beyond recognition. For too many children, there’s been no access to regular learning environments: no playgrounds, no slides, no swimming pools, no grandparents, no learning how to walk on the grass at a big family picnic. Recent research from The Royal Foundation shows that in the UK, 2 of 3 parents of young children aren’t even aware that the early years are a critical window for brain development and learning. The Government has also sidelined the importance of these years, offering no policy response or support to young families whose children are affected by this crisis. As a researcher on Early Childhood Learning and Development, I have to ask: who is stopping to think about the implications of this? Who is working on ways to make up for this?
Compounding this crisis is the pandemic itself. This pandemic is what we call a shock – a significant life change. Shocks cause enormous stress (called “toxic stress”), elevating cortisol levels, altering chemical signals, and affecting health and wellbeing. Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child has published extensive research on the effects of life shocks on early childhood in particular. The research shows that shocks are particularly problematic for young children because their brains are still developing.
As a parent, I worry about the implications of these facts for my children every single night. My research at the Faculty of Education focuses on parenting in the pandemic, and its implications for early childhood learning. As you can imagine, this means that I am living my own research. My home is also my lab. It’s been challenging to carry the burden of knowing that there is a systems-level failure in early childhood that no one is acknowledging. I feel the pressure of solving this problem at home, and also at large. This was the impetus behind my Ted Talk on 2 February: to spread the message and garner support for parents.
After everything I’ve read – literature reviews, parenting research, journal articles on Covid-19 and childhood – I’ve reached the conclusion that is at the heart of my research: in the absence of any formal assistance or policy for young families, it’s down to parents to guide this young generation through the learning crisis by doing the simple things that we know are transformative for children’s development. Primarily, this means play.
Play is the quintessential learning vehicle for under-5s. Two-year-olds can’t read textbooks, and 4-year-olds don’t learn by writing essays. They learn through play. The blessing of this is that even if parents aren’t equipped to teach their children how to read using phonemes and split digraphs, they can play with their children in ways that embody responsive caregiving and promote healthy learning and development.
Dr Ron Ferguson, MIT-trained education economist, categorised the kinds of play that parents can do to promote healthy development using 5 basic principles:
- Maximise love and minimise stress. Considering what we know about the toxic stress the pandemic could be causing, this is particularly vital.
- Talk, Sing, and Point. Singing and conversing with young children boosts language development and builds strong neural networks.
- Count, Group, and Compare. Early numeracy is important for starting in Reception, but these simple tasks won’t feel hard for parents or children.
- Explore through movement. This is especially important as physical freedoms have changed for many children during lockdown.
- Read Stories. The linkages between reading to children and their healthy development are extensive. Reading to children under-5 soothes and calms, boosts communication, powers up imagination, and reinforces love.
Play could be the solution we need to this unacknowledged early learning crisis: research indicates that parent-child play acts as a buffer against stress, and a protective mechanism in the face of a life shock. It’s also a big part of fostering resilience in children. Thinking about Dr Ferguson’s five “basics”, I am trying to make sure our family does these things daily, in whatever ways are possible and fun given the parameters of the moment. We count raisins, have star jump contests, sing in the bath, and read before bed. These small moments of play are our way of trying to maintain a new normal for our kids that still looks healthy and positive, because this will help them to stay resilient in the face of this crisis. If there is one thing I hope for my children as they exit the other side of the pandemic, whenever that day arrives, it’s that they will have been resilient. And I’m confident that other parents feel the same.
Sabilah Eboo Alwani is a Google-funded Doctoral Candidate at Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, examining the effect of parental engagement on early years learning and development during the Covid-19 crisis. Her career spans media, education, technology, and international development, and has a strong focus on early childhood. She is particularly interested in using multiple research methods to interrogate parent-child resilience building. Her research is affiliated with Cambridge’s REAL and PEDAL Centres. Sabilah is also writing a book on early childhood development and the new science of parenting.