Sue Allingham: Explaining the coronavirus to young children

Children need to know what's going on - here's how to help them.
April 1, 2020
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These are tricky times for all of us. Every time we’re given new instructions from the government, I keep hearing the expression “this is the new normal”. But what does “normal” mean when you’ve only been on the planet for less than 60 months?

As adults, we have our life experience to inform what we do right now, but even that isn’t all that helpful at the moment. We know that we can talk to each other and make the best of our situation right now. And we can also navigate through all the conflicting, confusing information that confronts us every day.

But how can we help the youngest children work through this tricky time when even we are having trouble? How can we talk to the children as practitioners and parents and decide on the best way to approach the subject of coronavirus? Well, it all begins with the way we talk…

The language we use

It’s always important to explain things to children as honestly as we can, using language that they will be able to make sense of. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

  • Answer their questions as truthfully as you can without being scary – Children are bound to pick up news from the television or radio, or from our conversations. They will certainly pick up on our mood, so it’s better to be candid and comforting about what’s going on in the world.
  • We must tell the children what is causing things to be different – This will mean explaining COVID-19 and being ready to answer their questions. You will need to think about how you will do this, your strategy, and the words you will use.
  • Talk to each other as families and practitioners – As always we must respect everyone’s wishes in all of this. Share strategies on how to explain the situation to the children. It is important that everyone is in agreement and that we work in partnership
  • Remember to keep the conversation as normal as possible and find a natural and relaxed way into it – A simple way to do this might be through a story, song or rhyme. For example ‘Miss Polly has a dolly’ or ‘Five little monkeys jumping on the bed’. Both these rhymes are fun and both mention doctors, thus giving a transition to a conversation about the current coronavirus situation. You could have a discussion about what could be wrong with Miss Polly’s dolly, or what the role of a Doctor is. The use of props could be helpful here if you have a doctor’s kit or a puppet.
  • Once the discussion is underway, add in the details you have agreed – You might talk about what might have caused the dolly’s illness. Bring in the idea of germs and how they are transferred between us, and talk about the coronavirus. Explain how it is making a lot of people sick at the moment so that is why we are being extra careful about handwashing – so we can get rid of the germs. At this point, it could be fun to practice the routine of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice to remind the children how long they should take washing their hands. And don’t forget your thumbs, fingernails and wrists!
  • If the conversation allows, then talk about social distancing – Because this germ is easy to catch, we are keeping people extra safe now by not hugging them, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t care about them any more.
  • Remember that, as much as possible, we must keep rooting everything back into what the children understand as normal, their familiar routines and practices.
  • Don’t drag conversations out and overload the children with information – Let them explore the knowledge and have time to digest it before adding more.
  • Avoid making any promises about what may or may not happen.

The environment we provide

Right now, children may not be in their usual environment with their usual Key Person and their friends. They are likely at home more often, or all the time. This means they won’t be seeing the people they are used to seeing every day, or keeping the hours they are used to.

The youngest children will be unsure whether their setting and familiar environment still exist, and this will be stressful. In much the same way as we have family books of photographs in our setting, we can send pictures of ourselves and the setting to the children on a regular basis. We can add little updates about what we are doing, share stories and even talk about children’s programmes and familiar characters.

The children will need transition objects too. So how about creating ‘mini-me’ versions of all the staff? Just a photo on a straw or a stick that the child can keep with them to remind them that you are still there. If the children aren’t at the setting, the photos could be sent home for the parents to use. Keeping daily contract with our nurseries and settings also makes a difference.

Childcare management software like Famly have instant messaging functions, which makes this communication easy. Through daily ‘chats’ like this, children can ask questions and tell you what they’ve heard.

Being surrounded by familiar things, even if only in pictures or text, means the children will keep you in mind and won’t feel as if you’ve deserted them.

Considering all involved

Involving families as much as possible is critical right now, and we need to work in partnership with the families at our settings. However, we must not forget the team we work with too. How each individual deals with the changes will impact on the rest of the team. The same rules apply to us – we need clear strategies and honesty to cope with what’s happening. So before any decisions are made for the setting, we need to discuss and agree on them as a team.

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

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

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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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