How have COVID-19 restrictions shaped your service’s community engagement?

One of the lessons the COVID-19 pandemic has taught is how important community and connection are to a sense of wellbeing. With parts of the country in extended periods of lockdown, many service teams are reflecting on how community engagement can be maintained during this time. This includes how service teams can continue to support children’s sense of belonging by helping them to experience connection and engagement with the local community.

Why connection is important

Before reflecting on strategies for engagement, you could start by revisiting WHY connecting with community is important. Does your service philosophy give you some clues about the values you hold? Do the principles, practices, and outcomes of the Approved Learning Frameworks remind you of the reasons you and your team strive to build meaningful connections? How does connecting with the broader community support the outcomes you are seeking?

Identifying your community

The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) results give communities a snapshot of children’s development and can support you to understand where developmental vulnerability exists within your community. The AEDC website  provides an opportunity for service teams to reflect on a community profile and offers strategies so the data can be used to understand who your community is.

You and your team can then build on the information by considering what is in your local area (emergency services, library, schools/education and care services, local businesses). In speaking to children, families, educators and other team members, you can also explore their current connections (people, businesses, clubs, organisations, interests) and consider how you might build on them.

These can be great starting points for you and all those involved with your service as you support children to feel part of their local community. But how do you maintain these connections when you are unable to explore your community in person or have community members visit you?

What the National Quality Framework says

Standard 6.2 of the National Quality Standard highlights the significance of collaborative partnerships that enhance children’s inclusion, learning and wellbeing. Specifically, Element 6.2.3 focuses on the importance of service teams making community connections for the service as a whole, and to further support children’s sense of belonging by helping them to build and experience connections and be engaged with their local community.

So how can you and your team continually enhance your approaches so that COVID-19 restrictions do not limit your efforts to build connections and relationships with the world beyond the front gate?

During these uncertain times it is useful to think about creative ways to continue to maintain the relationships that you and your team have worked to build. During COVID-19 restrictions, methods of engagement are often based around virtual spaces, however finding new ways to connect can support not only children, but the educators, the families and the wider community as well.

Reinventing experiences

Reinventing quality practices and experiences that were once accomplished with ease, is not a simple task. However, through collaboration with your teams you will find there are many ways to continue to meet the requirements of Standard 6.2.3.

Some practice examples could be:

  • If you have a connection with an aged care facility or senior centre, there may be opportunities to:
    • play online games
    • send video messages
    • plant seedlings in personalised pots and do a contactless drop off
    • engage in a virtual music session with the facility
    • share in a virtual morning tea.

Creating videos and audio messages are a great alternative for children when seeking other ways to connect.

  • If you usually go on a weekly visit to the library, there may be opportunities to stay connected to the library:
    • through their online initiatives
    • by sending a weekly message to your Librarian about a book you and the children enjoyed
    • by reconnecting to past experiences by encouraging children to think and talk about all the places you would pass by or things you would usually see on your way
    • by recreating a library space with children and provide the experiences that occur when at the library.
  • If you usually participate in excursions to the zoo, museums, or science centres, there may be opportunities to:
    • engage with their online resources. Many of these and other venues are now live streaming and creating amazing content, allowing them to continue to surprise, delight, teach and connect with the wider community.
    • explore these as part of your program and encourage learning with planned and spontaneous activities.
  • If you engage with the local schools to support school transitions,there may be opportunities to arrange:
    • a virtual tour of the school to help familiarise children with their new school environment
    • virtual tours at your early childhood service to orientate new families when in-person visits are not possible.   
  • If you have a community library,there may be opportunities to:
    • reflect on turning it into a community pantry with supermarket supplies,
    • think about how you, your team and children can make resources accessible to families and the community when they may not be able to enter the service
    • display artworks, or community resources outdoors or on the fence for the community to engage with
    • create care packages or creative arts packages that your local community can collect and use at home.

Technology and media have increased access to other communities and organisations beyond your local neighbourhood. However, it is important to note that fatigue can set in with devices, so also look for solutions that allow you and your team to build and maintain your connections with community in “low-tech” ways. Drawing pictures, writing cards and notes, taking thoughtful actions, planning for future connections, and even reminiscing about people and experiences, can connect you to your community. These strategies allow you, your team and the children, the opportunity to work on communication without time restraints, and allows those you are connecting with to do the same.

The bigger picture

Reflect on ways children can develop empathy, respect and kindness. With the children, you could consider who might need to hear positive messages of care and concern during this challenging time. Encourage your learning community to look out for each other and those around them by doing simple things that make each other’s day easier or happier. Promote kindness in communication with families and the community, instilling a culture of hope and resilience. Every point of connection makes a difference.

The possibilities of who can become part of your community during this time have shifted and you and your team have an opportunity to push boundaries and find innovative ways to build and maintain relationships with the community. While the ideas discussed are relevant to a nation in lockdown, they are useful in reminding you to look at the bigger picture of connectedness. Whether it is through in-person visits, virtual communication or even letter writing. When you develop respectful and responsive links with the immediate or wider community, it will further enrich your quality practices, improving outcomes for children and families.

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