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Learning from the Covid lockdowns: how can nurseries support parents and carers at the sharp end?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 July 2023

Woman guides two children cycling with training wheels. Credit: Polack via Adobe Stock

Credit: Polack via Adobe Stock.

Rachel Benchekroun and Claire Cameron.

Given the growing pressures on families in the context of ongoing austerity policies and the current cost-of-living crisis, as well as the immense financial pressure on early years providers, greater investment is needed from central government to enable early years settings to provide safe, supportive and sociable spaces for families with young children.

When most people think of nurseries, it’s the education and care of young children that first springs to mind. Yet, the role that these settings serve in their communities goes much wider, even more so given the closure of over 1,300 Sure Start children’s centres since 2010. This has been magnified first by the Covid-19 pandemic and now by the cost-of-living crisis, during which time nurseries have acted as vital brokers to diverse kinds of support as well as social networks. Our portrait of one nursery in London, as it and the families it served navigated the Covid-19 lockdowns, drew out the multifaceted nature of these settings’ role and why it’s time to reconceptualise how we think about them, and fund them.

The case study nursery was part of a not-for-profit organisation based in a disadvantaged London neighbourhood. In taking a detailed look at its day-to-day work, we wanted to understand how the spatial constraints produced by Covid-19 and the first England-wide lockdown (in Spring 2020) affected how nursery practitioners built relationships with parents, brokered friendships amongst parents, and facilitated access to different kinds of support for families. We saw just how broad the nursery’s role was before as well as during and after the lockdowns, and how that enabled the nursery to be of even greater support in harder times.

Through interviews with mothers, nursery practitioners and managers, we found that the nursery had long been greatly valued as social infrastructure, to use Eric Klinenberg’s term, a physical community space bringing people together and facilitating social connections.

Pre-Covid, practitioners and parents interacted informally when children first ‘settled in’ and on a daily basis at drop-off and pick-up times. Moreover, staff made full use of the space by regularly inviting parents to take part in cultural activities in the classroom, participate in curriculum workshops, and attend parent consultations to find out about their children’s learning and development. In these ways, nursery practitioners not only got to know parents but also encouraged parents to connect with each other. Mothers would arrive early to chat together, and these regular encounters led to the formation of friendships over time. This was particularly important for families living in small homes with no outside space. The nursery acted to help reduce social isolation, attenuate loneliness and increase wellbeing.

Equally, building parent-practitioner relationships in this way helped develop trust. As a result, families felt comfortable to talk with the nursery staff about their support needs, which in turn enabled these practitioners to help them access different kinds of support, either directly or by signposting or referral. The nursery’s food bank was a notable example of how its space was used to provide direct support to struggling families, as part of its multi-generational approach.

The first Covid lockdown, social distancing and other public health measures led to significant changes in organizational practices and access to the nursery space. These affected interactions between parents and practitioners, and amongst parents, creating new challenges which intersected with the additional stressors that families (and practitioners) were facing at this time. Nevertheless, cognisant of their role in families’ lives and support structures, nursery managers found ways to maintain regular contact with families at a distance during the setting’s temporary closure. This included through video-calling, phone calls and the parent app, and even continued access to the food bank for parents and carers who were most in need.

When the nursery re-opened, with distancing and other protective measures in place, parents and practitioners had to once again navigate new ways of engaging with each other, seeking to re-create safe spaces, albeit at a distance. As one aspect of this, because parents and carers had to wait outside the building and could no longer discreetly help themselves to items from the food bank, they would instead ask for (or be offered) ‘a bag’. This new language helped to de-stigmatize take-up of this form of support. The role of our case study nursery continued to evolve in this regard. Alert to the increasing financial and material precarity of many families, staff obtained funding and in-kind support from partner settings and external organisations to provide clothing and food parcels to all families who wanted them.

The reality is that many communities right now need this support with access to material and other resources as well as with developing their social networks. In the absence of other readily available sources of help, many early years settings are stepping in, and, as in our case study nursery, doing so with compassion and sensitivity, rooted in the close and trusting relationships they forge with families. This approach should be adequately recognized and funded, so that all early years settings are supported to offer this invaluable, holistic care for families and their children.

Read more at: Benchekroun, R. and Cameron, C. (2023) Shrinking social spaces: The role of nurseries as social infrastructure and brokers of support in times of crisis, Children and Society.

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