Kirsty at six months: the Nordic approach
So Kirsty is six months old – she’ll be sitting up, looking around and being curious about the world, and keen to interact with those around her. If she were in Sweden or Norway she’d have the opportunity of going along to an open kindergarten with her mum or dad once or twice a week.
Last year, I was lucky enough to visit several open kindergartens while travelling with a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship.
While being a new, and especially a first-time parent, is usually a time of joy, it can also be one where parents feel isolated and challenged by uncertainty and lack of confidence in their new role. Open kindergartens provide an open space where parents can come with their children to spend time, meet other parents, building social networks and peer support as well as finding professional advice and support if they need it.
Kirsty at six months: Early enquiry
Kirsty at six months: Poverty doesn’t have to lead to poor outcomes
Kirsty at six months: Dad faces obstacles
The biggest difference between open kindergartens and other forms of childcare is that parents are present and take part in the work that is aimed at supporting the children. By working with parents as well as children, open kindergartens are strengthening families at an early stage so that they are reassured and secure in their new responsibilities as a family.
Open kindergartens are usually part of Family Houses, which offer an integrated approach to the early years with a progression from midwifery to health visiting services along with family support and childcare services. Being located in a Family House, and part of a multi disciplinary and co-located service means parents have access to a wide range of services in an informal and non-threatening way, at the earliest identification of need.
Sessions are largely unstructured offering time for interaction and informal contact between attendees - children, parents and professionals. The open kindergartens I visited were divided into specific activity areas as in traditional childcare settings (quiet/reading corner; sand; water etc.). Various activities were on offer: playtime; reading sessions; singing; sharing food, such as snacks or meals. They also hosted visits and talks from other allied professionals: for example, local libraries, relationship counsellors and health professionals. Additionally more targeted activities may be offered such as parenting programmes and family support.
The open sessions offered opportunities for contact and for relationship based work. Staff were very skilled at simultaneously being ever present and available to help while maintaining a very unobtrusive presence.
On the one hand, this enabled parents to interact with each other and to form relationships and networks, and often to find their own solutions to problems.
On the other, it enabled staff to build relationships with parents on a more equal footing which in turn permitted information to be given about parenting skills, child rearing and child development in a less hierarchical and non judgemental way. Open kindergartens provide a non-threatening, low threshold way of enabling parents to ask for help and to establish help seeking behaviour.
Open kindergartens are staffed by early years teachers and social workers. The social workers referred to themselves as ‘preventive social workers’ or ‘social work advisers’; they had a non-statutory role and accordingly parents viewed them without the stigma and threat that is all too often associated with social workers in Scotland. Staff work closely together in the open kindergarten, as well as drawing upon the other staff located within the family house to make timely and relatively informal referrals.
Similarly, this worked the other way round. For example, child health nurses were able to inform parents about the open kindergarten, and accompany them there where necessary.
For example, a child health nurse told me about a mother who was experiencing low level post-natal depression and was very isolated; over the course of several appointments she was able to persuade the mother to come along with her to the open kindergarten, and simply putting an arm around her as they stood at reception indicated to staff that this was someone who needed some extra support.
Open kindergartens staff were highly enthusiastic and committed to the concept of open kindergartens. Some had moved over from more traditional childcare settings, and valued the opportunity it offered them to support the whole family, feeling that given that the family is the child’s main caregiver, strengthening parents’ confidence and resilience was of primary importance in securing positive outcomes for children. Staff felt that working in an open kindergarten increased the quality of their contact with parents, which enabled them to work with parents to strengthen the parent-child relationship.
Parents clearly valued open kindergartens. They talked of the importance for them of relaxing time out, the chance to meet other parents, and being able to ask for advice or support informally. Several mentioned their experience as a parent being normalised and consequently being validated as a parent.
For example, one first-time parent said, “I thought it was just my baby who didn’t sleep”. Knowing that that was not the case was reassuring, and also led her to get advice on sleep from other parents and professionals there. Normalising the parenting experience is an important and empowering part of parenting that often feels forgotten in the increasing professionalism of parenting services - by letting parents see that what they are experiencing is normal, their confidence and resilience to parent are increased.
Evaluations show that the centres are used by a demographically representative cross-section of parents, including those from lower socio-economic groups.
Open kindergartens offer a way of working preventively to support parents in their role as caregivers and educators. They do this at the earliest stage of a family’s parenting journey instilling resilience from the beginning, and normalising asking for help. Above all, they do this in a way that empowers parents and allows them to discover and use their own strengths, providing a helping hand along the way, knowing that they are the experts on their own child.
Open kindergartens would make such a difference to families in Scotland - I’d love to see Caley and Kirsty have that opportunity. If we want to make Scotland the best place to grow up, open kindergartens are definitely an option we should be looking at.
Clare Simpson is manager of Parenting across Scotland, a partnership of charities focussing on issues which affect parents in Scotland. She was able to travel to Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 2015 to look at their systems of family suppopt thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travelling fellowship.