Barnardos Auburn Children's Family Centre is in Cumberland Council, a local government area in Sydney which is under the highest level of lockdown restrictions in New South Wales. As a result, the 50-place LDC now has a greatly reduced cohort of 15 children, all of whom are children of essential workers.
Randa Zakhary, an early childhood teacher at the centre, says there are many advantages to having a smaller group, including creating a more approachable way for all the children to interact with one another, which develops social skills, helps them engage and work together.
“There's an enhanced opportunity for educators to observe closely and track the progress of the children and it minimises behavioural challenges,” Randa adds. “There are other benefits with mixed abilities where more advanced children can teach their peers and help them, and a bigger opportunity for teachers to support the children based on their needs and skill level with individualised attention.”
CELA early education specialist Kate Damo sees this as a good time to identify children’s individual interests so they can be pursued to keep them engaged. “It provides us with the time for meaningful interactions with individual children that are not always possible in larger groups,” she says. “When educators provide enjoyable learning experiences for the children, it strengthens a positive association with the service. Consider how experiences can be even more tailored to individual interests while there are less children in your service.”
Even though the curriculum looks the same, with a smaller class some things do become easier, Randa admits. Cooking, for example, and other group experiences where educators might have had to split the cohort in the past, can be presented to a small group and educators can be more attentive to how engaged each child is. “This is a good opportunity to be more focused and to help children with different abilities,” says Randa.
Separation anxiety and security
Randa notes that many children miss the stimulation of a bigger group, particularly in physical play. She and the team also care deeply for the children at home who are unable to come in. The staff have been contacting those families to check in with them and help them feel supported. “We are trying to do our best, sometimes doing Zoom learning for the children at home through our app,” she says.
Kate Damo has heard from CELA members that some children are experiencing increasing separation anxiety when they attend early education and care, while the rest of the family, including older siblings, are staying home. It’s therefore important that educators emphasise a feeling of safety and connection. Kate recommends ensuring children experience continuity as much as possible, especially when it comes to the educators they are with on a particular day, so the child can build and maintain trusting relationships. She also advises continuing with established practices, which provide children with a familiar structure that supports a feeling of security in an unpredictable world.
There are also changes required due to restrictions. Wearing a mask to teach makes it more difficult to communicate because children rely a lot on facial expressions, especially younger children who are pre-verbal – not to mention how taxing it is for staff to wear them all day. Visits from specialists, such as speech pathologists, have been cancelled. And community events that might have helped to foster connections among families and the wider public have been put on hold.
Randa says that because they need to minimise in-person contact, they are encouraging parents and carers to email or call, but “it's challenging for some of the families to talk on the phone”. This makes it difficult to communicate about new policies and procedures and for families to discuss changing circumstances. “Some of the parents have a hard situation, then we need to understand the situation because we are all in this together. It's not individual,” she notes.
"Having a smaller cohort also means most staff are not working every day. It’s a chance to attend professional training, to read more articles, do research, to do reflection. We share articles, and now there are a lot of webinars they can attend to up-skill themselves.
Strengthening team bonds
Even those at work must stay at a distance from the other adults on site, so maintaining team relationships is also key to riding out this difficult period. Randa says at her centre they practice active appreciation where each team member anonymously writes something positive about a colleague, and they play games to strengthen team bonding. “We actually feel that we're getting closer during this time.”
From STEM shows to sticky honey - how educators are reaching out to children who are staying at home
We have seen many inspiring examples of early educators providing a variety of different online experiences for the children who are staying at home. This includes read aloud sessions shared on the service’s social media or communications portals, craft and activity packs being sent to children at home, and live STEM sessions.
Bright blue hair and purple cabbages - sassy STEM explorations
Fiona Lucas, an Early Childhood Teacher at Birrahlee preschool in Sydney’s Lane Cove, usually teaches 20 children. Due to the current outbreak, her class has been reduced to between 6- 10 children attending.
“Throughout this lockdown period we have been connecting with our families through the Seesaw platform,” shares Fiona. “My team has sent a weekly video message to children at home to stay connected with our families. We started off reading a daily story to the children via Seesaw and then I decided to add a bit of variety to the videos we are sending home by filming myself singing and dancing to some of our favourite songs.”
During National Science Week, Fiona took it a step further and decided to try and engage the families at home by filming a science show and dressing up as a character to make it more enjoyable and fun for the children.
“I sent an email home the week before telling the parents I would be doing this and what ingredients they would need to have to be able to join in and try the experiments at home. I sent three videos home and at the end of each one I gave them a taster to stay tuned for the following day's show. The response has been fantastic. The children and parents really loved the experience and have been sending in comments and photos of themselves trying the experiments at home.”
According to Fiona, the children who are attending preschool have also seen the videos on their parents' devices at home and have loved trying the experiments for themselves at preschool.
“It has been a really positive way to connect and communicate with the families at home. For book week I dressed up as a character and read some books, hosted some puppet shows and sent a quiz home about children’s books.
Bee keeping and pollination - buzzing about sustainability
Kellyanne Gianatti is the Remote Educational Leader of Kamalei Children's Centre, a small LDC in the NSW Southern Highlands.
Whilst in lockdown, the team at Kamalei are thinking creatively about how to run the program with only a third of the children in attendance. Kellyanne, who is a licensed beekeeper, recently ran a Zoom session on the topic of bees, as the children had been learning about pollination and sustainability.
“The children enjoyed watching how my hood and gloves were taken on and off the bee suit and listened to interesting bee facts about the lifecycle and how honey frames were spun to release the golden honey nectar,” says Kellyanne.
A Jar of honey was sent to the homes through Australia Post in a recycled post pack and a honey tasting for all children is planned once lockdown is over. Kellyanne has future plans to broadcast a zoom session showing her citrus orchard. Children would be invited to cut up a variety of fruit to investigate what's inside and learn about what vitamins they contain.
“I suppose the moral to the story is just to do the best with what you have and save some great moments to relive and share when children return from lockdown,” shares Kellyanne, who says that the staff at Kamalei are coping well with the ups and downs and are all prepared to talk about the uncertainty and change and take turns at propping each other up when needed.
“Technology and new ideas can be used in effective ways and the key to this lockdown dilemma is to keep encouraging and supporting each other and remembering to continue to put children first as we always do.”
Early childhood guided learning packages
The NSW Department of Education has just launched a series of early childhood guided learning packages.
The early childhood guided learning packages have been developed by early childhood professionals and learning designers. They can be used to supplement learning at home for 3–5-year-old preschool children if they are not accessing their usual preschool or early childhood education due to COVID-19 restrictions. The packages can be used by early childhood teachers and educators when supporting families to engage with the child’s learning at home.
The packages contain a full week of learning activities such as shared reading, singing, physical movement, creative arts and include explicit teaching guidance and open-ended learning experiences for children. They link to The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia and support children in their transition to school.
A new package will be launched each Tuesday and will also be available as a printable version. Find the first week of activities at early childhood guided learning packages.