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It’s a bit isolating when the best you can expect is to stand within 2 metres of someone else. And even that’s only for special occasions these days.
That’s why, in the absence of coffee breaks, open door policies, and nursery pick-ups, bringing your parent community together online has never been more important.
Early Years settings are still balancing in-person sessions and remote teaching, as well as opening and shutting for specific groups as government guidance continually changes. It’s been a massive learning curve for us all.
So how have practitioners and Early Years leaders been doing it? To find out, I chatted to Pat Tomlinson about her toddler group, Bright Sparks, and how she managed to keep parents engaged and connected over the last 10 months. She’s used online communication for nearly an entire year, without any hiccups. Her secret? Well, it all starts with the children.
If you’re looking for some inspiration on how to keep the momentum going with your own parent community during lockdown and beyond, here’s how Pat started – by looking at it through the lens of the children instead of the adults.
“I don’t like when the parents just stand back and chat while the children run about,” she says. Instead, her group is all about parents and toddlers connecting, interacting and learning from their peers.
This is no different with the group going online, and is whythe group has been such a lifeline for parents and children alike over the last year – it didn’t just provide learning resources, it maintained and strengthened connections.
Below, we’ll take a look at why taking a collaborative approach to parent partnerships is the key to building these connections, and how to introduce it.
As lockdown set in, Pat saw early years settings and toddler groups take to interactive videos as at-home online resources. She jumped on the bandwagon and started filming her own.
Creating little activity and craft packs, Pat posted or delivered them to the children. From stickers to craft paper to dinosaur colouring sheets, these revolved around the weekly activities Pat filmed. But these activities didn’t just excite children and parents – they created a bridge between individual parents and the group as whole.
“We read a story one week called ‘Baby goes to the park’ and I planned some activities around it,” Pat told me.“I then had countless parents messaging saying their children were asking to go to the local park and find ‘what was in the story’ after the session.” Pat’s creativity and materials created a shared experience that allowed parents to connect with their children, and opened the door for new ideas and interests to blossom.
Perhaps the most valuable thing of all – this snowballed and created a ripple effect through the group, as parents started to post and discuss what activities they’d done on their group chat. By simply giving parents and children that little snippet or resource, it inspires them and gives them new ideas. That’s what’s so special about Pat’s group: it inspires the people within it.
“I just filmed myself doing the activities we would normally be doing, like story time and singing time,” Pat says. You don’t need to be wildly creative to make it work,but having that familiar face in parents’ living rooms gave them their Wednesday routine back.
Getting parents to engage in group discussions and form these partnerships can be slightly tricky, especially when you’ve well and truly filled your Zoom coffee date quota for the century.
Below are some of Pat’s top tips to bring your parent community together remotely, and make lockdown a little less gloomy:
If you’re already using Famly for your setting, you’ll know that we actually have handy features to communicate with parents. You can message them directly, and have the option of posting pictures, videos and updates to all parents at once! We wanted to make it as easy as can be for you to build those connections.
If parents feel safe to share their thoughts and personal experiences, they’ll be more likely to connect with other parents around them. At Bright Sparks, parents understand that there is a confidentiality aspect to the group.
If the group doesn’t offer an environment where parents feel like they can trust others around them, they’ll never open up for fear of being judged. Pat acknowledges that it’s easy for parents to split off into different groups, and this doesn’t always foster a feeling of confidentiality and openness. Building that trust may take some time, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Offering support builds parent’s confidence, and in turn their self-esteem – they feel confident and able to make suggestions and bring questions as they know that other parents are there to help, support and chat to.
This is where your group can maximise its potential. It’s not just about providing resources for children – it gives parents a safe space to discuss topics free from judgement. Lockdowns can be particularly harsh on everyone’s mental health, and having a secure environment to discuss problems is nothing short of invaluable.
Half of us picked up new hobbies during lockdown – remember the supermarket flour shortage when we all scrambled to become Nigella with the perfect banana bread? It’s easy to pick up something new, but how do you stick at it? And how do you keep children and parents interested in these sessions 10 months in?
Pat spills the beans on how she keeps the momentum from falling, and how to keep it interesting to boost engagement and participation.
“If you don’t try you don’t know. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone,” Pat says. You may not have all the time in the world, or the energy to keep finding new resources, but even the small steps can take you out of your comfort zone and make the world of difference to parents’ and children’s wellbeing.
If you take one thing away from Pat’s experience, it’s that your group has immense power to help others connect at a time when they need it the most.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.