The Child

Should we rethink our approach to Christmas in the Early Years?

June 20, 2022

Debbie Garvey lays out her vision for a child-led Christmas

Debbie Garvey lays out her vision for a child-led Christmas
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I love Christmas. And yet here I am, writing an article about why we need to do a little less in our Early Years settings to celebrate it.

So before you worry that this is another ‘bah humbug’ article from a yuletide-hating anti-christmasser, I want you to know I’m writing this while watching Christmas movies – in Mid-November. I guess this year I needed that Christmas magic and sparkle earlier than usual…

That being said, every year, as I get lost in the anticipation and build-up, I worry about how we present Christmas to our children in the Early Years – and whether we really consider the disruption it can cause.

With the world even more topsy turvy than usual this year, I think it’s a good time to reflect on what’s best for the child at Christmas, and how we can plan our activities for them, and stop overwhelming ourselves with expectations in the meantime.

Preparing for a 2020 Christmas

I’m as certain as I can be that Christmas 2020 is likely to be very different for a lot of us. Just as many people have already celebrated Eid, Diwali, birthdays, weddings and all manner of other celebrations a little differently this year, we’ve already had to throw out a lot of our usual Christmas prep work.

We might have to think about decorations and decorating our settings differently, restricted as we are by the materials we can access and use. Any parties will be ‘bubble’ dependent. We can’t have all our parents in to stay and play and as for events – well, unless we’ve huge spaces where ‘social distancing’ is possible, maybe Mary and Joseph might have to wait until next year to find their stable again.

So perhaps, instead of tying ourselves up in knots to fit our normal plans into an abnormal year, we can take advantage of the changes to start again and put children at the heart of the holiday festivities.

Why should we rethink our approach to Christmas in the early years?

Disruption is difficult for even the most grownup of brains – but neuroscience research tells us that little brains feel it too.

It might not seem like it, but decking our settings out in Christmas gear may not be the best idea. When children come back after a weekend at home to find their safe, familiar early years environment has been completely taken over by a red, green, and fluffy white Christmas, it’s worth considering just how disruptive this can be.

We need to ask ourselves, is this overnight change the best thing for their happiness? Their development? What about their sense of safety and security in what has already been a difficult year?

And what about Christmas plays, nativities, carol singing, turning out conveyer-belt style arts and crafts stuck with cotton-wool snow, when some children have never seen the real thing … are they really the best thing for our children either?

Finally, it’s worth being honest with ourselves – preparing for christmas can be stressful. Prep for pantomimes, carol concerts and endless card making can take its toll on even the most dedicated Christmas fan. If we want to keep children at the heart of the magic and sparkle, having adults who are enjoying – rather than stressing – about what should be a magical time is probably a good place to start.

Before we go onto how we can keep keep that magic and sparkle at the heart of Christmas for our children, here are some questions you can use to reflect on your Christmas plans:

  • Are our plans something that we enjoy doing, or are they adding to our team’s stress?
  • How much of our environment are we changing overnight?
  • Are our plans really about the magic and sparkle of christmas? Do they embrace the magic of childhood?
  • Who exactly are our Christmas plans for? The children, the parents, or us?
  • Who exactly do our Christmas plans benefit, and how?
  • How do our plans fit into the context of our broad, multi-cultural society?

What do children look for in an Early Years environment?

Before I give you some ideas for a more child-centred Christmas environment, let’s start by thinking about what children enjoy.

To partly misquote Urie Bronfenbrenner, children enjoy being with ‘irrationally crazy’ adults.

In other words – adults who have fun, are happy, like playing and who enjoy being with them. Children enjoy arts and crafts, singing, dancing, having fun, being outside and generally being…children.

None of that is completely separate from Christmas, but is there any reason why we can’t celebrate while still making sure all children are happy and comfortable in your setting?

Instead of thinking about what children want, maybe the answer is simply to ask them. Ask them questions like:

  • Do you celebrate Christmas at home?
  • If so, what is Christmas like for you?
  • What sort of things do you do to decorate your home for christmas?
  • What kind of things do you want to do over the next few weeks?

And ask ourselves questions like:

  • What do you want the children to see or learn about Christmas?
  • How much do they already ‘know’ and understand about Christmas?
  • How much can the children be involved in decorating the setting themselves?
  • How can the children be involved in the decisions about what is happening?
  • What does Christmas actually mean to all of our children?

Ideas for a Child-Centred Christmas?

You know your children and families best, but here are a few suggestions for a more child-centred Christmas in your setting that you might like to consider as starting points.

1. Arts and crafts
Arts and crafts can be child-centred, and still be full of sparkle and magic. They don’t have to be the same copy-and-paste snowman cards.

Ask yourself, how can we support children to make self-directed, personalised cards and gifts that mean something to them? Let’s be honest, it doesn’t have to look like a Van Gogh copy to be treasured and loved by the parents and grandparents that get them.

2. Stories and singing
Snuggling up with stories, songs and rhymes is something that can be enjoyed year-round. At Christmas, these times can become extra special. The literature and songs we find around this time are filled with magic, joy and colour, and the messages of kindness, sharing and thinking about friends and loved ones.

Just make sure that you find stories and songs representative of every child’s experience. That might mean finding some more seasonal, wintery songs and stories rather than just ones about our version of this time of the year.

3. Role Play areas
As Twitter’s @MrsAEYFS rightly said recently in a

However, we aren’t saying that the home corner can’t have a little sparkle. We can add enhancements, such as a child-sized Christmas tree and decorations, that the children can use.

4. Outdoor Play (for wellbeing & Christmas)
I am sure that as adults, we’ve all experienced an increased need to get out of these four walls recently.

And, I’m certain we’ve all been in situations where we have witnessed children who need to be outdoors too. I’ve used the word need on purpose – I’m sure many of you will agree that there seems to be a biological need for children to connect with nature.

Science agrees with us there too – that being outdoors is good for all of us. A recent study, for example, showed that ‘students who spent most of their time at home during the COVID-19 epidemic experienced better mental health when exposed to more greenery’.

With the right planning (and clothing), there’s no reason we can’t consider some christmassy outdoor activities too. Think about things like athemed treasure hunt around the garden, Christmas-related circle games, songs and rhymes, or, if you’re lucky and brave enough, even stories around a campfire.

5. The Role of the Adults
Regardless of the themed activities you decide to do – the role you play as an adult is key.

Activities that are supported by adults who enjoy playing with, and spending time with, children, will always have an element of magic and sparkle. Ultimately, I suppose, Christmas is about ‘awe and wonder’ – and that’s the magic of childhood too.

Therefore, activities offered and supported by adults who believe in the magic of childhood will be full to bursting with awe and wonder for the children. Handled sensitively, child-led and with a bit of thought and planning, there is no reason why any of these activities shouldn’t have Christmas, winter, or other seasonal multicultural themes too.

Explaining all this to parents

There’s no doubt that the repetitive nativities, carols, and identikit cards still mean a great deal to parents and other loved ones. Scaling things back a little is likely to benefit the children, but it’s important that we take the time to help parents, who may have different expectations, understand that.

The following questions might help as starting points to explore your thinking.

  • Who are these activities really for – is it for the children?
  • What do the children gain, or benefit, from the activity?
  • Why are we doing ‘this’ activity?
  • Do the children actually want to do this?
  • Does this bring that all important ‘magic & sparkle’ or ‘awe & wonder’?
  • How do you know?

And my favourite question – if not, why not?

These are just some examples, and whatever you have planned, it doesn’t mean parents won’t get to enjoy some lovely christmassy moments or gifts with their little ones. But once you take some time to explain to parents why you’re changing things, and why it’s being done with the children at heart, you’ll quickly get them onside too.

Debbie Garvey is a consultant, author & trainer, with over 35 years of experience across the Early Years sector. Debbie has particular interests in developing understanding of neuroscience and PSED for children and adults. You can connect with Debbie on Twitter @Stoneg8Training or through the website

The big ideas

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

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.

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