In a matter of days, the coronavirus upended just about everything Jo Skone knew about the Early Years.
“It’s ironic. I spent the last 20 years telling children to not worry about dirt on their hands, and now we wash our hands twelve times daily. I’ve spent my career telling children to get away from screens, and now I’m using YouTube as a lifeline to them,” she says.
No wonder this strange new world has left Jo feeling a little upside down. A senior teacher and the forest school leader at Randolph Beresford Early Years Centre in White City, London, Jo has spent her whole Early Years career getting children outside. Living in an urban setting, she’s always had to get creative to give children meaningful outdoor experiences.
When the coronavirus lockdown hit the UK, Jo quickly turned that creativity toward going digital — and supporting her setting’s most vulnerable children, whose families were hit hardest by the pandemic.
Her experience during lockdown tells us a lot about the resilience of the early years workforce, ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. But most of all, it highlights the simple truth behind so many of the people care for and educate the UK’s young children: That a passion and concern for every child is at the very core of everything they do.
Here’s how Jo and her team at Randolph Beresford fought to create a sense of purpose and normality during quarantine, and how they were there for the communities overlooked in the larger response to the pandemic.
A lifeline through lockdown
At the start of lockdown, Jo put out a small video just to let children know she was still there, and still thinking of them. She didn’t know it would be the first of many.
“It seems naïve now, but I didn’t think it would go on for so long,” she laughs. “But once I started sending videos, I did it all the time. I didn’t want to stop sending them, because I didn’t want to let the children down.”
What started as a small side project between Jo and a few staff soon snowballed to include the entire setting. The team at Randolph Beresford put out daily videos, ranging from activity ideas to scavenger hunts in the local estate to reading a favourite story aloud. For Jo and her team, the focus wasn’t so much the activity itself, but on creating something that everyone could share together.
“You’ve got to have a good relationship with children and family first, and the high-quality teaching and learning comes after,” she says. “So when we weren’t seeing each other, we had to find a way to keep those relationships strong.”
Randolph Beresford has about 130 children, but the videos Jo and her team have sent through the pandemic have clocked nearly 6,000 views. The team have received grateful feedback from families — for many of them, the nursery’s work was families’ most consistent source of structure during the quarantine.
“I’m overwhelmed sometimes, I never expected this reaction. These videos have been essential for families,” she says. “It means so much to children to see the face of someone they’re close to again – even if it’s just to share a story together.”
Supporting the most vulnerable families
At the start of the lockdown, Jo worried that many of the children would go back to difficult or uncertain home lives.
Randolph Beresford serves a disadvantaged community in London. One third of the nursery’s children are high-level special needs, and many live in local estates or foster care. Many of the nursery’s families lost work or were furloughed at the start of the lockdown, and some are living undocumented. So Jo and her team couldn’t assume that every family had the resources they needed during a long period of home learning.
“We had to be sensitive to how their lives are. A lot of our families are living in one room, or shared housing. It would have been tone deaf to send along an activity telling them to get out their big set of paints and crafting materials — we had to be sure we made everything accessible to everyone.”
Jo’s activity videos included recipes for making simple paints at home, or stretchy craft rope out of old nylons. For the families with limited access to technology, the team sent along handwritten letters, and packets of seeds to plant in the local estate.
Because many of the children at Randolph Beresford rely on public meal assistance, Jo and her team realised quarantine might put those daily meals in jeopardy — so they prepared parcels of food for home delivery and pickup. It was never about any grand gesture so much as consistency; just to be a constant, caring presence in children’s lives.
“I thought, if I can just make a couple of children’s days — or hours, or minutes — just a little bit easier, then that’s a good job. We can all do something,” Jo says.
The road ahead
These days, the views on Jo’s videos are dropping off — a video that used to get 300 to 400 views might get 30 or 40 now. She takes that as a good sign.
“I think that families’ home lives are getting stronger and back to normal, and so they don’t need the videos as much as they needed in those first months,” she says. “But even if the views are dropping, that’s still 30 children whose lives are being impacted.”
We’re learning to live alongside this virus, and to manage the anxieties and uncertainties that come with it. Randolph Beresford is open again, though not all its families are back yet. Jo says things are already feeling more normal again.
“When you’re at work with the children, that’s what takes over. The children are really happy to be back, and it’s great to be back with them. There’s a sense of normality — children are really good at grounding you,” she says.
By the thousands of views on Randolph Beresford’s videos, or from the grateful feedback from the families, it’s clear that Jo’s nursery — and many more like hers — are essential, and critical lifelines through lockdown for vulnerable communities across the UK. But when Jo talks about her team’s work during quarantine, she makes it sound like second nature.
“The lockdown had us working in a way I’d never imagined. But I think that’s just one of the skills you need as an educator — to be resourceful, creative, spontaneous, to think on your feet and deal with things as they come. That’s just what Early Years Teachers do.”
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