AEL 2020 Special Edition - Issue 2

Loss And Gains Of COVID-19: Through The Eyes Of The Child

Alexandra Harper; Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett; Michele Peden; Danielle Cogley and Kim Bertino. The authors are all members of The Apiary Fellowship[1]

COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. As adults we have had to accommodate the shifting demands of social and economic restrictions, we have felt disconnected and fearful, and we have been resolute and determined against a backdrop of uncertainty and lack of control. But how have young children experienced COVID-19? Intrigued by this question the authors came together to gain insight into children’s lived experiences. This article is a result of that collaboration. It captures the direct and unfiltered voices of children as they reflect on their own COVID-19 journey, the losses, the gains and what living in a COVID context means to them.

The children interviewed range in age from three to five years and come from a diverse range of early childhood education and care (ECEC) services across NSW and Victoria. The children were invited to share their thoughts and feelings about COVID-19 and what they thought adults need to know. For many of the children this represented the first time an adult had checked-in on their experience. All the children featured here voluntarily shared their insights, giving permission for their work to be included in this article. We thank them for being so generous in sharing their profound insights. The authors also thank the early childhood teachers who collected the children’s drawings and words that are featured in the article.

This article is structured according to three themes that emerged from the visual representations and dialogue collected: COVID-19 through the lens of safety and security, relationships, and control. Intertwined throughout these themes was a message of loss and restoration. The drawings illustrate the different ways children have actively attempted to make sense of what they have observed, heard or experienced. While the focus is on loss and restoration, the children also share a message of hope and resilience, as we regain a sense of normalcy. There is much we can learn from what the children have shared, for the here-and-now and for the future. Central to this is the valuing of relationships and connection.

Loss and Restoration of Safety and Security

This first set of drawings capture children’s understanding and reflections of the coronavirus, a virus that is depicted as pervasive, inescapable, deadly, and overwhelming. Children’s level of understanding is both sophisticated and nuanced. They understand how viruses work and the potential impact on themselves and others. The coronavirus creates uncertainty and stress, challenging children’s sense of safety and security as it is ‘deadly and everywhere’, ‘makes you sick’ ‘spreads’ and is ‘all around’. It forces you to ‘stay inside’ and ‘look after yourself and wash your hands a lot.’

Figure 1. This is what the Coronavirus looks like, this is how you do it. This Coronavirus spreads like this (4- year-old).
Figure 2. COVID-19. It’s deadly and everywhere. I had to stay inside (4-year-old).
Figure 3. The Coronavirus is a germ that makes you sick. You have to look after yourself and wash your hands a lot. Look, here is my hand covered in germs, I have to wash them away (4 year old).
Figure 4. Somebody standing next to the Coronavirus, it’s all around (4-year-old).
Figure 5. I can’t draw anything, but I know Coronavirus spreads germs and I can write that (4 year old).

Loss and Restoration of Relationships

This second set of images captures children’s experiences of COVID-19 through its impact on relationships. Here we witness both a sense of loss as well as the shifting dynamics in how relationships operate, the latter being a result not only of the virus but the rules that have been imposed in order to keep us safe (e.g. social distancing). The sense of loss experienced by many of the children is intimately tied to the disruptions experienced within extended familial networks, most saliently the lack of access to grandparents. Associated with this is the grief associated with the loss of physical contact. This is most evident in Figure 8, where the physical disconnection created by social distancing rules is evocatively depicted as a jail cell, encasing and separating people from each other. Despite the distraught faces, the child has demonstrated agency, hope and a sense of control, stating that we can still do something, ‘we put some hearts on there to show love.’ While a sense of loss is apparent, the restoration of relationships is equally salient. Again, grandparents feature highly in this message of reconnection and restoration, ‘it makes me feel good now I can see grandma and grandpa’ (Figure 7).

Figure 6. I am a little sad because we can’t go to Lollipops and I want on go on holidays to grandma and grandpas and to America and New Zealand. No one can fix it. My brother thinks it won’t ever go away. I think it will go away. At least we still get to play with our toys, and Christmas will happen, and I love going to kinder, but not ballet yet. I’m happy I can do stuff (5-year-old).
Figure 7. These people are 5m from each other. There might be a little bit of the Corona virus when its nearly finished. When there is no Corona Virus then we can get close again. We can’t see much people now. It makes me feel good now I can see grandma and grandpa (5-year-old).
Figure 8. So…. Someone is happy, someone is sad, someone is angry, and someone is whispering. The Angry one has some tears. They have to have gaps and they aren’t allowed to go out. We put some hearts on there to show love (5-year-old).

Loss and Restoration of Control

As adults we have been acutely aware of the loss of control which has accompanied COVID-19, this too has been felt by young children. The final set of images reveal how children have adapted to COVID-19 rules and the social messaging which surrounds this. The children demonstrate a sound awareness and understanding for the need for social distancing – it keeps us and others safe from the virus. They went on to communicate how these rules are controlling where they can go, what they can do and with whom they can interact. Again, the sense of loss of relationships can be seen. In Figure 11, we see the regaining of relationships trumping the importance of going places ‘I was happy! We can go out, but we can’t get close to people at the shops. I like that it’s not around so much now. You can only hug your family now.’ There is real joy expressed by the children in rebuilding and reconnecting. The enduring nature of relationships as well as their power and potential to restore children’s sense of safety is a theme shared by many of the children.

Figure 9. You need to social distance because it is important, otherwise you will get sick. It’s about me and my mummy social distancing (5 year-old).
Figure 10. There are people, there are the ‘X’s saying you can’t touch it. The dots are the Coronavirus. You can only walk where there are no dots (4-year-old).
Figure 11. There is something good. There is only a little bit of corona virus right now. I was happy! We can go out, but we can’t get close to people at the shops. I like that it’s not around so much now. You can only hug your family now (4 year-old).
Figure 12. That’s me going to the park. I’m happy because I go with my family (stayed at home during COVID) (3 years).

Discussion and Implications

The more we as educators understand the impact of COVID-19 on young children, the better positioned we will be to support children at times of crisis. This small sample of visual representations and associated ‘stories’ contributes to an emerging understanding of young children’s lived experience – their understandings, fears, concerns and priorities. The young children involved in this project have not only listened to information in their environment but have reflected on it in an attempt to make sense of their lives at this unique point in time. They have formalised theories about COVID-19 and made connections with how it has impacted their lives. Within the tight restrictions associated with COVID-19 they have tried to find an element of safety, control, and predictability. While some of the children here reveal real world fears and uncertainty, for the most part, young children’s experience of COVID-19 has been felt through the disruptions they have experienced in their relationships – it has been a journey of losses and gain (or re-gains). It has placed a spotlight on the importance of connections and relationships in both the maintenance and restoration of safety for young children, and most importantly it captures the resilience of children and their sense of hope for the future. It is fitting we give the final words to a child, a four year old, who on returning to kindergarten after isolation and remote learning captured his relief in returning to normalcy and reconnecting with his teachers and friends in six words: ‘thank goodness fake kindy is over’.

[1]The Apiary is a fellowship of leaders representing different aspects of early childhood brought together by The Front Project, an independent national enterprise working to create positive change in Australia’s early childhood education system.

About the Authors

Alexandra Harper
Alexandra Harper was the recipient of the 2019 ACEL ‘New Voice’ in Early Education and Care scholarship. She has held teaching and educational leadership positions in the early childhood, primary and tertiary sectors in government and independent systems, spanning a twenty-five-year career in education. Alexandra is currently a doctorate student at UNSW researching Forest Schools in Australia.

Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett
Associate Professor Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett is the Academic Director of the Early Years and the Director of Pedagogical Leadership, Early Start at the University of Wollongong. Her research expertise and publications reflect a consistent interest in the nature of development from early childhood through to middle childhood. Cathrine’s current research projects focus on quality early childhood education and care environments, enhancing access to early childhood education and health services, integrated service delivery and the promotion of children’s self-regulation. Since joining Early Start at the University of Wollongong, she has taken a senior role in key, large-scale intervention and evaluation projects focusing on educator knowledge, practices and experience and is involved in the evaluation of structural initiatives that are designed to improve children’s learning and development outcomes in the early years context.

Michele Peden
Michele is the Pedagogical Thinker in Residence for a not-for-profit provider. She has had over 25 years’ experience working and advocating in the early education and care sector. Michele’s roles have included teacher, lecturer, consultant, and researcher. She has authored publications on professional learning, pedagogy, physical activity and nutrition.

Kim Bertino
Kim Bertino’s career in early childhood education has included working across policy development, service delivery, professional development and stakeholder engagement and management. In recent years, Kim has been CEO of a large provider group, leading a team to deliver high quality early childhood education to over 6,000 children per week. Kim is a strong advocate for children’s rights and is currently the National Secretary for Australian Community Children’s Services, a peak advocacy group in Australia.

Danielle Cogley
Danielle Cogley has worked as a kindergarten teacher in long day care, been a deputy director and is currently the kindergarten director at Box Hill North Primary School’s onsite kindergarten. Danielle has also held the position of Early Childhood Sector Councillor for the Australian Education Union (AEU). This role providing Danielle with a range of opportunities to advocate for children.