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, the season 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?
More modern Christmas activities include '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 are heavily focused on influencing the children's behaviour and generally using Christmas/Santa/Elves/presents as a means by which to coerce children to behave in a certain way in the run-up to Christmas.
While these are intended to be fun and lighthearted, this can make the Christmas run-up feel high-pressured and stressful. Parents must remember 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 friends' lists come laden with countless new Elf on The Shelf ideas). The children must try desperately to maintain a certain level of behaviour in order to meet the excessive expectations the festive period imposes upon them, and for many, these feelings and level of self-regulation and inhibiting their own actions/behaviour aren’t developmentally appropriate.
Similarly, what happens when Christmas is over? What 'reason' do children have to behave in this desired way with no external reward once they have received everything on Christmas Day?
Christmas has changed, and it is interesting to look at the impact that technology has had; 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 they are laden with gifts.
This year, our setting has decided to move away from the traditional advent calendar, instead doing 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 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. The whole group also 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.
While the Nativity play or Christmas production is a popular event in many settings, 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. Although many children enjoy learning songs, dressing up and using props, but when it comes to the actual performance, this is a nerve-wracking time for most three- and four-year-old children with 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. For those parents who cannot attend, this guilt can be devastating.
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 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 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.
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 rein 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.