Let us play! Toddlers locked out by Covid buck-passers

DESPITE Herculean efforts to become Covid-secure, the vast bulk of early years providers – playgroups, children’s centres, forest schools, children’s activity programmes – closed their doors at the start of the second lockdown.

Add to this soft play areas, swimming pools, theatres and, of course, people’s own homes, and the chance of a toddler being able to meet and play with another toddler is reduced to almost nil. Hence the huge surge in playground use by parents since the lockdown began.

According to the Register of Play Inspectors, one in three parents took their children to a playground in the first week of lockdown, producing a flurry of communications to playground managers updating their risk assessments. It is pretty rare to see a rush on playgrounds in November.

I was one of those parents, and it was a source of great relief to see other families at the playground. Socialisation and physical activity are vital for children’s development, nurturing communication skills, building physical agility and laying foundations for future relationships. Now the majority of early years providers are closed. So for us, playgrounds are a lifeline.

A recent OFSTED report found that an astonishing 53% of playgroup staff noted a decline in children’s personal, social and emotional development after the first national lockdown.

Some children had returned to playgroup less confident. Others had regressed to using dummies or reverted to nappies when previously they had been potty trained. As ever, the children hit hardest tend to be from deprived backgrounds, as well as those with learning difficulties or disabilities. One playgroup manager described a second national lockdown as ‘a disaster for children’.

Unless the Government views baby and toddler development as dispensable in its strategy to fight Covid-19, why have ministers not take steps to ensure these vital facilities remain open?

The answer is to be found in two words: ‘provides support’. As long as a baby and toddler group provides support, it can open its doors to 15 adults and an unlimited number of children under the age of five.

To a parent, the question of whether these groups provide support is a no-brainer, especially when children are cut off from extended family during full or partial lockdowns. So why have so few opted to continue?

Some would argue that the guidance is confusing, creating obstacles that providers struggle to overcome. . In a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Labour MP Ellie Reeves called for sector-specific guidance to be drawn up in order to give certainty.

However, sector-specific guidance was published for soft play areas and, instead of triggering widespread reopening, it led to more closures.

To some, there seems too much guidance, often overlapping and contradictory as the various components of toddler care are regulated individually, such as separate guidance for venues and for childminders. With so many hurdles to jump, it is no wonder that so many playgroups have chosen not to reopen. But where does that leave our children?

Early years provision breaks down roughly into four categories: Children’s centres, voluntary church groups, forest schools and independent practitioners running activities in venues which they hire.

These providers are, to varying degrees, under the umbrella of larger organisations such as the Early Years Alliance or the Forest School Association. In the case of churches, policy is overseen by the House of Bishops in the General Synod. All are under the authority of their local council.

Charting a way through the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, individual providers naturally look to these organisations for a steer. But the message overall has been weak, pushing responsibility back on to the shoulders of individuals and small organisations.

Rather than emphasise the significant shift in Government policy towards continuing baby and toddler provision this time round, the Early Years Alliance sent out a muted email to its members on November 5, offering a FAQs page that explained the guidance without any apparent urge for members to make use of it.

In a similar, dispassionate statement on its website, the Forest School Association referred trainers ‘to the section of the guidance requesting that training be moved online where possible during this period’.

The Children’s Activities Association went further, explicitly urging its 1,000-plus members to stop running classes in a face-to-face format. The reclassification of baby and toddler groups as providing support, thereby permitting them to stay open, has not made it on to the CAA web page, so the advice remains the same.

In the case of churches, where voluntary groups offered local and often very inexpensive early years provision, the stipulations for restarting groups laid out on the Church of England website feel weighty and burdensome.

Again, the responsibility is thrown back into the hands of volunteers. If they ‘cannot assure themselves … that they can satisfactorily meet the requirements, then it is recommended that this type of activity should not be held’. It comes as no surprise that almost no church groups have started up again since closing in March.

Add to this the ever-present fear. Not of contracting Covid-19. Young children, if they contract it at all, experience it mildly and mortality rates in adults under 65 are very low.

It is the fear of being shut down by local council officials who are writing and enforcing their own version of the rules, by police who are ‘visiting’ forest schools and questioning leaders, or driving menacingly slowly past community venues.

Fear of the reputation damage should a case of Covid be associated with your group, even indirectly and quickly overcome, as it is in the vast majority of cases. The fear of being abused on social media, accused of putting other people’s lives at risk.

But what of the risk to children who are being denied their chance to play, communicate, socialise, move freely and gain new skills at this formative age?

What of the risk to those toddlers sitting in front of screens all day when they should be learning through playing? What of the risk to young children who live in a chaotic environment and need these activities as a healthy release?

The average age of death from Covid-19 is 82 years old. This is higher than the average life expectancy. Can we really justify passing the burden of this virus on to the youngest and most vulnerable: Our babies and our toddlers?

And yet parents, who would be the first to contract the virus in the unlikely event their toddler catches it, and who are more inclined to be in contact with elderly parents they love and cherish, are visiting playgrounds in droves. They know where their priority lies.

If only the organisations that purport to champion children’s wellbeing, along with the Church of England – the very custodian of God’s children – would reconsider their priorities, perhaps the nation’s children might have a chance of escaping this lockdown without suffering any more harm.

But more than anything, reopening baby and toddler provision needs the unequivocal backing of the Prime Minister and the Government. Without it, these small, often independent, providers are at the mercy of the officious new Covid enforcers who thrive by feeding on their mounting fears.

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