Starting at an early learning centre for the first time is an experience parents often ease their child into. While every child is different, some need time to adapt.
But what happens later if, when your child is settled and enjoying the interactions with educators and friends, suddenly you need to take a break?
Time away from early learning can happen for many reasons. It could be due to something joyful such as a long family holiday, or for more challenging reasons – a family illness or personal situation which will mean your child is absent for an extended period.
Either way, it’s worth considering how to keep your child connected during their absence and how to smooth their transition back into the centre on your return.
Professor Marilyn Fleer is the Foundation Chair in Early Childhood Education and Development at Monash University and the Australian Research Council Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow.
She says the first thing parents should realise is that while absences may be planned or unplanned, they aren’t necessarily a negative.
“Parents feel guilty over all sorts of things. I encourage parents in this position to think about the positives,” Professor Fleer says.
Professor Fleer says families who are away for travel will discover many benefits.
“The children are experiencing lots of new things and parents become their narrators, explaining the world they are experiencing. It’s wonderful for language development as there’s lots of talk happening in the family that is different to what is happening in the childcare centre,” Professor Fleer says.
An opportunity for language development
As an example, the challenges and differences that come up on holidays can open up new narratives.
“Children will ask interesting questions about everything from time zones to new plumbing, so this brings some cognitive benefits. Plus, as you are talking a lot, you are naming new things, tasting new foods and probably having more time together as a family, so it becomes a beautiful opportunity for language development and social family development,” Professor Fleer says.
Of course, absences aren’t always planned or for something as joyful as travel. Perhaps a grandparent is sick interstate and the family needs to step in for a while to take on a caring role. Even in this case, Professor Fleer says there is a lot to be learned during the time away.
“It can become a very rich experience for a child. They are learning another set of important things, such as how to care for someone they love. They might learn about different types of medical professions: these are rich insights that can be capitalised on back in childcare,” Professor Fleer says.
In a caring situation, Professor Fleer says it’s important to help children feel part of the bigger picture, particularly for preschoolers.
“Could you make them a nurse’s hat or doctor’s hat? Are they the person who looks after the thermometer or makes sure Grandma’s glass of water is filled by the bed? That way they have a kind of responsibility,” she says.
“They can have books and pretend to read to Grandma. Most four-year-olds can’t read words, but they can read pictures of their favourite story,” Professor Fleer adds.