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Do you remember the thrill of your childhood birthday parties? I do.
I remember one in particular; I was eight and it featured a clown with a fear of balloons. When my friends started popping them, he ran out the room. That’s a whole other story, but what is intriguing, though, is why such things are so memorable.
When I think back to my childhood, I recall learning to ride a bike, losing my first tooth – things that mattered to me. The Covid pandemic has been tragic in many ways, but for our pupils it’s stolen many of these memorable experiences and this has impacted children emotionally, socially and mentally.
At our trust we’ve always believed in putting children first and unlocking academic and personal potential. As more children started returning to school following the partial closure of the first lockdown, we worked tirelessly on creating an accelerated curriculum while also ensuring that mental wellbeing and mindfulness were part of this.
With our plan complete, we felt proud of what we’d accomplished, but when I spoke to pupils they said they were sad. I listened – the single most powerful thing you can do for a child.
It was clear that our pupils missed having things to look forward to. They missed seeing relatives; days out with their friends; celebrations. Once we heard this, we knew something had to be done.
It was clear to us, as practitioners, that there was a danger of spending so much time focused on the logistics of learning that we forgot that being ready to learn is the foundation. This includes skills such as resilience and being able to thrive socially in an environment where you feel safe and loved.
Without this, there’s no point trying to teach lessons on fronted adverbials.
A saying I remember from my own youth is, ‘You can’t build your castle on quicksand and expect it not to sink.’ If we didn’t help the whole child, how could we help them learn? We needed explicit ways to show our children they were loved and cared for, and wanted to give them positive memorable experiences.
School is full of unforgettable experiences: discos, shirt signings and graduations, to name a few. These usual rights of passage were different last year, and that’s understandable – it’s hard to sign a shirt standing two metres away.
So, as a school, we decided to unpick what was missing and think creatively about how we could give children a memorable experience in these unfortunate times – an experience unachievable anywhere else presently. We had many ideas, but giving children birthday parties in school was probably our favourite one.
I mean, who doesn’t love a party? This idea also comforted parents, knowing that their children’s special day was important still and they could be with their friends to celebrate.
While we can’t replace all the experiences children are missing out on, they specifically mentioned missing parties. This was something we could help with. We knew it would provide a sense of belonging and normality, and, let’s face it, they’d also have some fun (and the teachers could get their groove on too!).
As we were in bubbles of 30, we were able to give children the birthday party that Covid restrictions had prevented parents from organising.
We hold the parties on the last Friday of every month for every child who has celebrated over that time. As we know families are facing financial difficulties, we fund the parties and cover all costs. Staff have created Covid-friendly ‘pass the parcel’ and ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ games, which are huge hits.
There’s party music in the background, socially-distanced dancing and the sound of a wonderful atmosphere around school.
Seeing the pure enjoyment and happiness on children’s faces every month as they celebrate their birthdays with their teachers and friends is truly special. The enthusiasm and joy radiates around the whole building. Pupils are so excited to celebrate their friends’ special days, and their own.
It’s really had a huge impact – friendships have been strengthened and children have enjoyed having some normality back in their lives. It’s certainly made me realise the importance of ‘readiness to learn’ and community collaboration.
Leanne Bridgwood is headteacher of Goldsmith Primary Academy in Walsall which is part of the Windsor Academy Trust. Follow her on Twitter at @leannebridgwood.
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