Christmas is an exciting time of year; particularly for children in the Early Years; the learning opportunities and experiences are endless and the magic and wonder that can be created for the children are truly heartwarming.
However, Christmas can also be a particularly challenging time for both practitioners and parents alike; but how much of it is our own doing? Does the festive period need to be a stressful time or are there ways in which we can make it less high-pressured and enjoyable for everyone, particularly the children.
Christmas brings with it some wonderful traditions as well as more modern Christmas inspired traditions and activities, the most popular being “Elf On A Shelf” (Scout Elves are Santa’s eyes and ears over the festive period and many cause mischief within the home and communicate messages to children during the countdown to the big day) and “Santa Cam” (a webcam that provides Santa with a direct insight into your home life – whereby he watches the children to see if they are being ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’. These more modern traditions are heavily focused on influencing the children’s behaviour and generally using Christmas/Santa/Elves/Presents as a means in which to force children to behave in a certain way in the run up to Christmas.
Whilst these are intended to be fun and lighthearted traditions for both parents and children; these behaviour modifying traditions can make the run up to Christmas feel high-pressured and stressful. For parents, remembering to move the Elf and think of new and exciting mischief for it to get up to (particularly with the pressure on social media as our friend’s lists come laden with countless new Elf on The Shelf ideas) and for the children themselves as they try desperately to maintain a certain level of behaviour in order to meet the excessive expectations the festive period imposes upon them, whilst in some instances they begin to fear the traditions put in place in the first place (“What will Santa say?”, “I hope the Elves aren’t watching”. etc) and for so many, these feelings and level of self-regualation and inhibiting their own actions/behaviour isn’t developmentally appropriate.
Similarly, what happens when Christmas is over? Christmas Day (and the days thereafter) are an exciting time for children, a sensory and emotional overload full of exciting new things, sugar and late nights and TV; all of factors which contribute to changes in behaviour and high emotions, particularly after an extensive period of withholding and containing certain emotions and behaviours in anticipation of being on the ‘Good List’ – so then what do we tell the children? What ‘reason’ do they have to behave in this desired way with no external reward once they have received everything on Christmas Day? Let’s remember that TV adverts and countless other mediums of advertisement for Christmas start from the end of Oct and therefore build up the hype and hysteria around the festive period and so this is a lengthy time for children to be co-erced into positive behaviour, particularly when once the Christmas fever has died down, children are left confused as to what is acceptable and why there is no longer so much fuss and focus on their behaviour.
Christmas has changed and developed with the times and it is interesting to look at the impact that technology has had on not only our lives but also the magic of Christmas; for example Talking Santa, Santacam, Track Santa – these things were not around 30 years ago, so what effect does this have on children’s understanding of Christmas? Similarly, Advent calendars are no longer just filled with the traditional chocolates, now instead laden with gifts toys and play-mobil; making even the smaller ‘Christmas’ traditions more about presents and gifts and as a result losing the traditional meaning of Christmas, whilst using food and gifts as another behaviour modifier over the festive period.
Taking this into account, as a setting this year we have decided to move away from the traditional advent calendar with a sweet treat as a reward, instead deciding to do a ‘Reverse Advent’ where children each have assigned days to bring in a packet or tin donation to put in our basket that we will deliver to the Salvation Army in the run up to Christmas to distribute to the homeless. We feel that this understanding and compassion and sense of ‘giving something back’ truly encompasses the spirit and meaning of Christmas.
Everyone has their own Christmas traditions and beliefs and as Early Years settings it is essential that we respect, value and promote these as we explore Christmas together to ensure nobody feels left out and everyone feels their beliefs matter and get the opportunity to express themselves adequately in order to keep the magic alive for everyone. For example, the whole group joins in with a particular tradition from each child, as you would with other religious and cultural traditions and practices to ensure inclusion is paramount throughout the festive period.
In addition to this, it can be tricky to know how much to tell children and when is the right time to introduce the Nativity Story in order for children to fully grasp and understand the meaning of Christmas; you know your children best as parents and practitioners and you know when your child is developmentally ready to embrace the true meaning of Christmas. From experience; we would suggest that children no younger than 3 years old will be able to grasp a simplified version of the Nativity story and so if you are a larger setting looking to conduct your own Nativity play, the preschool age group is the most developmentally appropriate age group to introduce this to.
Whilst the Nativity play or Christmas Production is a wonderful event and a popular one in many childcare provisions/schools/preschools, it is important to be mindful as both practitioners and parents the pressure this can put on us all. For practitioners, the gruelling preparation, practices, prop-making, line-learning, organisation, permission form signing and performance production is simply phenomenal. For the children this too can be a stressful process and as we know all too well, so many children enjoy learning songs, dressing up, using props that comes with the build-up of a Christmas performance, however when it comes to the actual performance, this is a nerve-wracking time for most children (take into account that these children are 3 and 4 years old and have 50+eyes on them) and so stage fright is common, even in the most confident of children. For parents, the Nativity play can add even more stress to an already busy and stressful period as they battle for time off in order to to make the performance, worrying about the time off they need take over the Christmas period already. For those parents who simply cannot take the time off to attend Christmas parties, Carol Concerts and Nativity plays, this guilt can be devastating. And so, whilst the Nativity Play/Christmas Performance is a lovely tradition, let’s not make it the focus of our Christmas celebrations and be mindful of the effects it has on everyone involved.
As practitioners,Christmas can leave us feeling a little bit like factory workers. At some point in our career, we have all been that person standing with a clipboard ticking boxes to ensure that every child has: made a Christmas card, made ‘Reindeer Food’, got a Christmas present, had their calendar made, got a part in the Nativity etc… the list truly is endless. But why is it like that in Early Years? Why must every child have the same generic format of cards/gifts/calendars etc? Who makes this so? Is it us as practitioners trying to be ‘inclusive’ ensuring every single child has sat down and had their foot painted in order to make an adult-led adorable reindeer/mouse/snowman inspired card? Or is it the parents expectations of ‘Why don’t I have a card from my child?’
Why do we insist that every child makes a card/present/dresses up for a calendar/makes reindeer food every year? Why does it send us into a panic when a child declares “I don’t want to?” Why can we not see past the child’s defiance and see that this child doesn’t want to physically create something Christmassy, but instead this child is choosing to spend their time outdoors pretending to be Santa delivering presents to the other children? Surely that is what Christmas is about in the Early Years? The child’s own representation of what Christmas means for them. If we insist on this Christmas Production Line year after year, who benefits from that? Nobody. The whole process just becomes meaningless and stressful for everyone.
As both parents and practitioners we should focus on providing the children with a variety of Christmas themed activities and experiences that allows them to explore the different elements of Christmas and use and represent these in any way they see fit. Encouraging the children’s own representation of Christmas is not only more developmentally appropriate and beneficial, but also allows us to encompass and incorporate their interests into whatever we do, which makes each learning experience that bit more meaningful and enjoyable for everyone.
In our setting, we have no set theme or templates for our cards, displays and Christmas artwork; the children are offered a range of different experiences, opportunities and resources and are given free reign to create, explore and represent their own feelings and ideas of Christmas in their own way, as a result having a more enjoyable and beneficial learning experience each time.
In the midst of the Christmas period, let’s all take a moment to take a step back and look at and re-evaluate the experiences, activities and opportunities we are offering and ask ourselves, “Is this enjoyable?” “Why are we doing this?” “Who benefits from this?”
With these questions in mind, let’s all pledge to take it back to the beginning. Let’s keep it simple, keep it magical and ultimately, let’s keep it Christmas.