A Unique Child

Covid catch-up – it’s time to take it in a different direction

  • Covid catch-up – it’s time to take it in a different direction

The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to re-think what children truly need to thrive, says Kerry Murphy…

One of the things I have loved about our Early Years Foundation Stage Framework is the principle of the Unique Child. It is fascinating and empowering to embrace the idea that children do not all follow the same developmental pathways but take varied, winding, diverse and adventurous paths to growth.

But, over recent years, we have been subject to this fundamental principle being reduced and squeezed out of our everyday practice. This has unfolded during the recovery from a global pandemic – a time in which freedom to learn in unpressured ways is even more essential to our wellbeing.

I don’t want to wholly deny or invalidate that there has been significant adversity throughout the pandemic and that, yes, in many cases, children have missed out on vital learning opportunities. We cannot undermine that, if done right, education can have profound positive effects on children’s wellbeing and learning.

But fundamentally, I disagree that overloading children with demands and pressure to race to an imaginary finish line is the answer. Equally, I have felt uncomfortable that learning loss is framed as though it is the fault of the child or family not being resilient enough to the effects of the pandemic.

The main issue with the current catch-up approach is that it perpetuates the idea that we get one shot at learning.

It is a longshot to think that all can be solved by standardising and placing more top-down pressures on learning. Learning is a lifelong pursuit built on secure social and emotional foundations. There is no doubt that a global pandemic has rocked those foundations and created emotional ruptures for children and adults alike. 

And so, we need time and space to repair, recover and resolve.

Focus on educational debts, not gaps

The pandemic has led to renewed efforts to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about different groups of children and families. We are exposed to the message that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are faring much worse because of the pandemic.

They absolutely are, but we must face the reality that these issues also existed before the pandemic. The so-called disadvantage results from communities being underserved before, during and in the ongoing “aftermath” of the pandemic.

When we think about disadvantaged groups, we can believe that this is about individual failures rather than the result of systemic inequality and the rise of poverty (Rana et al., 2022).

The basic needs of many of our children are still not consistently met, so how might we engage children in learning without these basics in place?

Should our focus at this time be on interventions that prime children to sit still and be ready for academic learning? By narrowing our focus on creating the ideal learner, we are gradually building up further social and emotional debts. And we need to start repaying those debts to ensure that children can thrive.

Focus on rupture and repair, not learning loss

According to Branam (2022), rupture relates to anything that disrupts our social and emotional connections. During the pandemic, adults and children all experienced the loss of social and emotional connections.

Our worlds were turned upside down, and we were catapulted with uncertainty into a “new normal”. While many have tried to ‘keep calm and carry on’... as normal, this is not necessarily the best approach for education.

We need to see an education system that adapts itself to the different directions that life takes us. We need time to repair and reconnect.

The best moments I have observed in recent months are when educators prioritise authentic quality time, re-establishing safe havens for children, and engaging in the messy processing of the pandemic, whether through conversation, play or attuned communication.

The catch-up narrative poses a risk on this quality time as we haul children into interventions or focus on training them to be “ready” for the next phase of education without letting this current phase naturally unfold.

Focus on uninterrupted play, not adult-led agendas

Play is often discussed in relation to early years, but the pandemic has highlighted that children of ALL ages need more time to play.

Play should not be used as a behaviour management currency. For example, I recently observed a teaching assistant consistently deduct minutes of playtime from children. We must ask ourselves why we still live in a world where this is deemed an acceptable way to control children?

We are still living in a pandemic, and yet, our expectations of children remain ill-adjusted because we conform to the policies of schoolification and reward and sanction. Significant discussions, initiatives, and policy debates have been about lost learning and academic catch-up.

But less has been said about the loss of play. According to Ryan & Deci (2006), play promotes wellbeing, yet children’s usual opportunities for play became limited throughout the pandemic. For example, the closure of play spaces such as playgrounds and the natural world which are essential for promoting competence.

There was also the loss of social play in which children learn to connect and relate to each other. Children’s choices and self-direction in play naturally had to transform and adapt to new environments. Yet, what priority has been given to play in catch-up?

Some might argue that jumping headfirst into intense schoolification is like building a tree house on chocolate stilts. Children of all ages need time to consolidate the pandemic through their play. More opportunities for child-led play and critical thinking are often our best chance of repair.

What’s more, we need to understand how the pandemic has shaped play experiences and learning. The work of the Play Observatory has been essential in making sense of child development through adversity. You can access more information at play-observatory.com.

We cannot deny that children might need lots of support from us over the coming months and years in the recovery from the pandemic, but we need to seriously think about which agendas serve children’s developmental needs. 

The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to re-think what children truly need to thrive, and it will always come back to basic needs; connection; and play. So, the next time you hear about catch-up and learning loss, seek to centre those three things first. 




It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids by Heather Shumaker (TarcherPerigee)

Self‐regulation and the problem of human autonomy: Does psychology need choice, self‐determination, and will?  Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci

Bridging the BAME Attainment Gap: Student and Staff Perspectives on Tackling Academic Bias. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 7). Karan S Rana, Amreen Bashir, Fatehma Begum and Hannah Bartlett

Kerry Murphy is a lecturer in early years and SEND at Goldsmiths University. Author of A Guide to SEND in the Early Years and Little Minds Matter: Supporting the Wellbeing of Children with SEND.

Follow Kerry on Twitter @eyfs4m or Instagram @eyfs4me