Life in lockdown held back progress of under-fives

Parents spent less time reading, chatting and playing with their children during the pandemic, according to new research by the National Literacy Trust. A quarter said they did not chat with their child every day in 2021, compared with just 10% in 2019, and only half (53%) of parents said they were reading to their child daily, compared with two-thirds in 2019.

And the proportion of parents who said they played with their child at least once a day in the previous week also fell from 76% in 2019 to 72% in 2021. The Trust surveyed more than 1,500 parents with children under five.

Overall, the research found that fewer parents of young children engaged in “home learning activities” – reading, chatting, playing, singing or painting and drawing – in 2021, compared with 2019, despite spending more time in the home with their child due to the pandemic.

Spokesperson Alison Tebbs said she thinks many parents struggled during the lockdowns to juggle full-time work with caring for children and supervising their learning.

“It was such a difficult time for people,” she said. “There was less support for families, there was less socialisation happening, and beneficial activities like going to the park or library were often unable to take place.”

Fewer parents of young children engaged in ‘home learning activities’ – such as reading, chatting, playing, singing or painting and drawing – in 2021 compared with 2019, according to the National Literary Trust. Photograph: Ronnie Kaufman/Getty Images

Even parents who viewed early learning activities as important were only slightly more likely to do these activities than other parents, she said, suggesting some parents were constrained by their circumstances or a lack of stimulation.

Reading with children and having conversations is vital for helping their brains develop, Tebbs said:

“One of the reasons two-year-olds act out is because they’re trying to communicate feelings which they can’t explain verbally. That’s why you get tantrums. The more words they have, and the more support they get when they communicate, the more in touch they will be with their emotions and with the wider world.”

Crystal Robinson, 29, and her two-year-old daughter Heidi live in a top-floor flat with no garden in Swindon. With her partner, Nick, at work, and no opportunities to go outside to playgrounds or outings, she relied on TV and toys. There sometimes seemed to be little need for Robinson to chat to her daughter.

“I didn’t really know what to say to someone so small,” she said. “I’d speak to her about what I was doing. Like if I was doing some housework, I’d pick her up and say right, we’re going to wash the plates. But then I’d think: I don’t know why I’m saying this because she’s not listening.”

Heidi rarely heard her mother talking to other people, since they weren’t socialising, and although Robinson did try reading a couple of books to her energetic toddler, “she seemed really uninterested”.

When Heidi started nursery shortly after she turned two in September last year, she wasn’t speaking much at all. She and her mother were invited to participate in a programme called Early Words Together, developed by the National Literacy Trust to improve children’s communication and literacy development. A further roll-out of the programme is taking place this week, sponsored by the children’s channel Nick Jr.

After weekly sessions with other parents, Robinson gained confidence communicating and reading with Heidi: “I’m constantly talking to her now.Heidi loves books now. And she never stops asking questions. She just doesn’t stop talking.”

Vanessa Dooley, founder of Jigsaw Early Years Consultancy, carries out mock Ofsted inspections at nurseries and thinks “an absolutely massive” crisis is looming for schools following the pandemic. “I’ve seen some children who, instead of turning the pages of a book, swipe as if it’s an iPad. Others, at the age of three, are unable to put two words together in a sentence. By the time they get to school, they are going to be so behind.”

In the past year, she has also seen many children having “outbursts” and biting and hitting other children. “Children are flipping their lids. They’re frustrated because they don’t know how to communicate what they’re feeling.” As a result, she worries children aren’t being taught how to regulate their emotions and that is going to have a knock-on effect when they start school. “They don’t know how to cope.”

Demand for speech language therapists is very high at the moment, she says, and some children are being put on nine-month waiting lists. “Communication and language in children has taken a massive nosedive. And children are struggling.”

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