Maree Todd: 'The circumstances you are born into should never limit the person you grow up to be'
Happy birthday, Kirsty! Three already – how did that happen?
She should be now talking, walking – or more often running – and developing new skills and a personality at an incredible pace.
In my job as Children’s Minister, I get to spend a fair amount of time with three-year-olds and they are really great fun. Plodging in mud with dinosaurs, climbing trees and reading stories together is all in a day’s work for me – I really do have the best job in government.
My own three children are strapping teenagers now. It feels like yesterday they were toddlers, but I have actually been the smallest in our family for quite some time. It’s an absolute pleasure for me to take a moment to think about what life was like for our family when we were all younger.
By the time our eldest turned three, she had a wee sister. And by the time our middle daughter turned three, the two girls had a wee brother. Our house was pretty busy at that stage.
In those days, children were only entitled to a few hours of nursery a day. I worked part time, and on a day off, those few hours were jam-packed, with chores, study, and whenever possible, a bit of one-to-one time with the baby of the family.
Kirsty will be entitled to start nursery in August. She is likely to live in an area that is already providing 1,140 hours, so her nursery week might look more like a primary school week and each day, she’ll get a healthy meal provided.
We know that high quality learning in the early years improves outcomes for all children, but it makes the biggest difference to those who are more vulnerable or disadvantaged. During the expansion, we want those who will benefit most to benefit first. That’s why phasing started in deprived areas. Funded early learning and childcare (ELC) will help to reduce any barriers that may be preventing her mum, Caley, from working or going into training or further study.
That is why by 2020, we will have almost doubled the number of hours children like Kirsty, and all three and four-year-olds in Scotland, will be able to access ELC. Our expansion to 1,140 hours of provision will save families a potential £4,500 and ensure all children are given an equal chance to thrive.
I’m pretty keen on active transport, and even though we lived in a very hilly part of the Highlands, we used a bike and trailer to get to and from nursery as often as we could. It was a sociable way to get about the village – we could say hello to everyone – and it gave me a chance to keep fit too.
Having babies and small children can be incredibly exhausting, and it’s tough to squeeze in exercise as well as everything else you need to do. Once my youngest went to nursery, I had a chance to look after myself too – whether that meant a cuppa with friends, an exercise class or a sleep!
My children loved nursery, and were keen to continue the relationships they built up there – often asking to go on to friends’ houses to play afterwards.
At every stage, I have celebrated and nurtured my children’s independence and even though occasionally I might have wished they wanted to come home and play with me, mostly, I was pleased they were stepping confidently into the world.
By three years old, they were getting better at doing all sorts of things independently – eating, getting dressed and going to the toilet without help. This skill development involved the odd mishap but all in all, life was getting easier.
Play is essential for children and mine liked nothing better than dressing up. A lot of their games at this stage were based on real life – playing at shops and cooking and caring for baby dolls. On at least one very memorable occasion, this involved using real ‘Sudocrem’ – a super sticky nappy cream which is not easily removed from the nooks and crannies of a plastic baby doll. Nor from the hair of toddlers.
Parents of three-year-olds master lots of tricks to encourage the kind of behaviour they want to see and I was no exception. Tidy-up songs make helping with chores fun and racing against the clock or a countdown can concentrate young minds on a task.
Children love praise at any age – they literally can’t get enough of it. Praising good behaviour can be a very powerful tool to encourage more of it.
My own sleep was very precious when my children were young and thankfully, sleeping through the night was a lot less elusive at this stage. Getting off to sleep was definitely a challenge, sometimes, though a grown-up bed is so much more easily escapable than a cot.
Life with a three-year-old can be busy, noisy and fun-packed. Reading a story together at bedtime can be an oasis of calm for everyone.
Kirsty will be entitled to a Bookbug Bag, just as my children were, which will help boost her love of books, reading, writing and drawing.
In Scotland, we are determined to create a world-class education system that delivers excellence and equity for all. This government’s defining mission is to close the poverty-related attainment gap. It is front and centre of everything we do so that we can equip generations to come – Kirsty’s generation – with every possible opportunity to thrive.
I have no doubt that Kirsty will be loving the PlayTalkRead roadshow which is completely free fun for her, her parents and carers. The songs, stories and messy play are great fun and she is becoming more confident and sociable from joining in.
The Best Start Grant, which has now been implemented, also means Caley will be eligible for a £250 payment to help pay for essentials such as clothes, shoes, toys, books and days out. The Early Learning Payment is part of a package of three payments to provide financial support during the key early years of a child’s life.
Around one in four children, like Kirsty, lives in poverty in Scotland, meaning they are less likely to get qualifications, a job or go to university. But in a country as prosperous as Scotland, no child should have their chances limited by poverty.
Making sure children and adults get the right support, at the right time, we can support their resilience and prevent a cycle of adversity being passed down from generation to generation.
I am working to improve outcomes for all of our young people and to ensure everyone has a fair start in life. The circumstances you are born into should never limit the person you grow up to be.